Book Review: Leaving Kent State by Sabrina Fedel
On May 4, 1970, the campus of Kent State University became the final turning point in Americans’ tolerance for the Vietnam War, as National Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed student protesters, killing four and wounding nine. It was one of the first true school shootings in our nation’s history. A new young adult novel, Leaving Kent State (Harvard Square Editions), by debut author Sabrina Fedel, brings to life America’s political and social turmoil as it ushered in the new decade of the 1970s. Throughout the harsh winter of 1969-1970, Kent, Ohio, became a microcosm of the growing unrest that threatened the very nature of democracy.
Told from the viewpoint of seventeen-year-old Rachel Morelli, Leaving Kent State explores themes of the day that are strikingly similar to our own: terrorism, war, racial injustice, and gender inequality. As Rachel struggles to convince her dad that she should go to Pratt University in New York to pursue her dream of becoming an artist, Kent slips ever further off of its axis, in step with the growing discord across the nation. Caught between her love for her next door neighbor, Evan, a boy who has just returned from Vietnam, and her desire to escape Kent, Rachel must navigate a changing world to pursue her dreams.
“While our nation has largely forgotten what happened on May 4, 1970,” says the author, “it was a defining moment for the way in which Americans consider involvement in war. While popular sentiment initially blamed the students for the massacre, it became clear in the years immediately following that something had gone terribly wrong in our democracy for American troops to have opened fire on unarmed college students. In our own protest laden present, the shootings at Kent State remain a valuable lesson in the escalation of force during peaceful citizen protests.”
I can’t think of another YA novel about the Kent State shootings. Can you? For me, as someone born in the 1970s, I grew up always knowing about this massacre—having it come up multiple times during college, especially, from professors who were college students at the time of the shootings and the Vietnam War. But do today’s teenagers know about Kent State? I’m not so sure. Should they? YES.
I am a broken record in my reviews lately. I keep saying how all of these books that deal with any sort of social justice issue are both timely and timeless; they speak to what is happening now, but also to what’s always been happening, and to what feels like it will continue to happen. To read about the Vietnam war, the protests, the organizing, the response from the administration and others in power, and the questioning of motives during this volatile time all feels very current. Yes, it’s the Vietnam War. Yes, it’s 1969/1970 in the story. Yes, there’s talk of 8-tracks and bell bottoms and other things that make it clear that we’re reading historical fiction, but the subject matter is still relevant. War and protest will always be relevant.
The summary up there does a pretty thorough job of telling you the plot. Rachel has been keeping in touch with her neighbor, Evan, his whole time serving in Vietnam. When he returns after 23 months, injured, she realizes that he’s changed—of course he has. He’s horrified and haunted by what he saw and did in Vietnam. He has PTSD. Looking back at his letters to her, Rachel begins to understand how much she misunderstood what he was writing her. He wasn’t fine there. He wasn’t okay. Now home, he still hangs around Rachel’s house all the time, but his dreams of music school seem impossible (he lost part of his left hand). Rachel, who’s been in love with Evan for years, tries to understand how he feels. At first Evan seems to only reveal his pain to Rachel’s dad, a WWII vet, but eventually he slowly begins to share more with Rachel about what happened over there. They grow closer than ever, but Rachel continues to wonder if he’ll ever feel for her what she feels for him, or if she’ll always be like a sister to him.
Meanwhile, she’s applying to Pratt knowing her dad absolutely does not want her to go. He’s a professor at Kent State and wants her to stay home and go there. And in town–and all around the country–there is growing dissent about the war, manifesting in rallies and peace vigils and sometimes riots. Rachel’s peers are getting drafted via the lottery. Their siblings and cousins and friends are being killed in the war. The unrest reaches a boiling point on May 4, when the National Guard opens fire on unarmed protesters. Rachel and Evan are both at the college when this happens and end up right in the thick of the horrific action.
This look at the effects of war, at a soldier returning from war, and at a weary nation is engrossing and well done. Rachel is a thoughtful narrator who grows a lot over the course of the story. The portrayal of Evan as a returned solider coping with PTSD (though it’s never called that—I suppose at the time it would’ve been called shell shock or a stress reaction) and readjusting what his life’s plan is is nuanced and compassionate. This story of an important and shocking moment in United States history is a solid addition to libraries and has a wide appeal.
Review copy courtesy of the author
Publisher: Harvard Square Editions
Publication date: 11/11/2016
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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