Reading The Rainbow is an original regular feature at Musings From Neville’s Navel. I’m a lesbian bookworm who loves to geek out about books and gay stuff, so why not talk about both subjects at once?! Basically, I review books with LGBTQ+ characters and/or themes, discuss the pros and cons of each, and tell you which stories are worth your time!
Title: October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard
Author: Lesléa Newman
Genre: Poetry, YA
Length: 111 pages
Published by: Candlewick
Date of publication: 2012
On the night of October 6, 1998, a gay twenty-one-year-old college student named Matthew Shepard was lured from a Wyoming bar by two young men, savagely beaten, tied to a remote fence, and left to die. Gay Awareness Week was beginning at the University of Wyoming, and the keynote speaker was Lesléa Newman, discussing her book Heather Has Two Mommies. Shaken, the author addressed the large audience that gathered, but she remained haunted by Matthew’s murder.
October Mourning, a novel in verse, is her deeply felt response to the events of that tragic day. Using her poetic imagination, the author creates fictitious monologues from various points of view, including the fence Matthew was tied to, the stars that watched over him, the deer that kept him company, and Matthew himself. More than a decade later, this stunning cycle of sixty-eight poems serves as an illumination for readers too young to remember, and as a powerful, enduring tribute to Matthew Shepard’s life.
Previous Reading The Rainbow posts may be found here.
I stumbled across October Mourning this winter at the library in my hometown while looking for something else entirely and thought, well, why not? I’ll give it a try. I’d never heard of it before but the concept intrigued me.
At just over one hundred pages, and with very little text on each page, this is a quick read. I think it took me about an hour to get through?
I knew Matthew’s story prior to reading October Mourning, but it would serve equally well as an introduction to the young man. The timeline of events, the perspectives of those involved and affected, even the environment in which the crime took place are all clearly and vividly explained.
Newman’s project is an ambitious one, for sure. Although you wouldn’t guess this from the blurb, multiple forms of poetry are featured – concrete, acrostic, list, haiku, couplet. Several draw inspiration from William Carlos Williams’ work. Some incorporate quotes from interviews, while others feature the text found on road signs from that desolate corner of Wyoming. One of my favorites includes snippets of prayer from various religious traditions.
I loved the quiet resilience and sense of community present in this little book. Lesléa Newman never met Matt, but she might have: He had planned to come to her Gay Awareness Week talk. And when she was told that it would be understandable if she cancelled, she refused, saying that now was when the students and community needed her most – but that she did want a bodyguard!
I’ll never not alternate anger with sadness when I think of Matthew Shepard, but reading this book was especially hard because I’m twenty-one now. The same age he was when he died. Knowing that, knowing how many things he had yet to experience and how much of his life lay before him, made my reading experience an even more intense one than it would ordinarily be. I’m grateful for that.
The preface, afterword, and notes provided valuable information concerning not only the author’s personal take on this tragedy, but the research she conducted to put together this volume as well. Definitely not something to skip!
I would recommend this book to…
- Poetry lovers
- Those looking for a quick read within the LGBTQ+ genre
- People who’d like to know more about LGBTQ+ history, particularly the lives of Matthew Shepard and other rural individuals
I’m gonna preface this whole final section of my review with the explanation that three-star ratings are NOT BAD, imo. Really! Three is the midpoint between one and five stars, soooo… that means it was an average read, yeah?
Which is how I felt about this book, if I’m honest. I LOVED the use of so many poetic formats. I loved the different emotions and points of view they conveyed. And yet this book, to me, just did not have that extra little bit of “oomph” to catapult it any higher than a three-star rating. It’s a good book. I’d recommend it if you have the time. I wouldn’t bump it up to the top of your TBR list – ahead of some of the other LGBTQ+ books I’ve read and reviewed here – if I were you.
I think that ultimately, October Mourning would go well with the documentary Matt Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine. I watched it at MBLGTACC in 2016 after his mother, Judy Shepard, gave the keynote address. Whether you know next to nothing about Matt or remember where you were when you first heard the news, together the documentary + novel in verse will pair wonderfully.