It’s inauguration day! Regardless of how you feel about the outcome of the election, I’m willing to bet your feelings are strong. Mine are and I’m so glad Leaving Kent State by Sabrina Fedel entered my heart and my home when it did because it made me less scared to stand up for my beliefs and turned me into a better human overall.
The World I Thought I Lived in
I’ve had a lot of conversations in the past few months with my husband about vaguely remembered concepts from elementary and high school—things like tyranny of the majority and informed electorates. As much as I found myself defending the electoral college, I couldn’t quite reconcile myself with a world in which the answer to liberal fact-checkers is conservative smoke and mirrors. See, I grew up with a liberal little heart in a conservative family in a conservative state (almost libertarianly so), but I was always taught that it’s my job as a citizen to have an opinion and to voice that opinion. So I will admit to feeling more than a little deflated when a man I don’t believe won through honest conviction or means was named president elect.
The World I Wanted to Live in
“I think Vietnam has a lot to do with changing things,” I said.
“What do you mean?” Evan studied me as he asked.
“I don’t know, I guess it’s made us ask why.”
I grew up such an idealist that I fully felt I should have been a member of the flower children and that if I had been alive during that time, I too could have brought an end to the Vietnam War.
That’s why Leaving Kent State was perfect for me. This young adult novel follows 17-year-old Rachel, a native of Kent and daughter of a professor, as she negotiates her relationship with the love of her life (who may or may not love her back) as he negotiates his new life as a disabled Vietnam vet. It’s 1969 and the social revolution hasn’t quite hit Kent, Ohio, though some of the students are trying to change that. Rachel’s also struggling with her destiny, which she feels is as an artist, but her parents just aren’t on board.
If Kent, Ohio or Kent State sound familiar to you, it’s likely because of the shootings there in 1970 of unarmed protestors by the National Guard. Some people credit those events with turning the national consciousness against the Vietnam War. The book gets there, though deliciously slowly as we explore what it’s like for a young girl to love a young man who experienced something she abhors. Thankfully Evan, the object of Rachel’s love, is a very round character and we get to experience through him both the camaraderie of the soldiers in Vietnam and the regrets of someone who saw and experienced the worst of war.
Who I Can be
I purposely started reading this book on the day of the January 15 rally to save the Affordable Care Act. I needed to believe that a group of people can in fact make a difference for the better. I trekked downtown with my young son in tow and, yes, I chanted all the chants. He could only take an hour of the rally so we missed the main event, but we sang our nightly round of “We Shall Overcome” and “Where have all the Flowers Gone,” and I’m energized to try again at the Women’s March tomorrow.
See, Leaving Kent State gave me hope. I should tell you that it’s very well written and that the period details are spot on and the characters believable. I should tell you that Fedel takes the subtle (and better) path of introducing the reader to people who know people who know people who are famous rather than hitting us over the head with unlikely encounters. Or how she drops in all the right information to ground our reading and hint at where the story is going without inundating us. Or how she paints one of the most tender and accurate portraits of PTSD I’ve ever seen on paper. All of those things are true. But as much as I love good writing, I am most grateful to Fedel for that gift of hope.
As part of my new rosy outlook, I also hope that it won’t take a tragedy like the Kent State shootings to heal the rifts that have been growing in DC and in our society since 9/11. But Leaving Kent State also gave me the courage to stand up for myself and for what I believe in even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. Rachel could not have known what she was getting herself into that day in Kent, Ohio, but even as events unfolded she and Evan were the best people they could be. This book helped me find out who I want to be—for myself, and for my son.
What is Young Adult Anyway?
Quick side note here about the young adult (YA) genre. When the author and I were discussing her book, she warned me that it’s YA. I personally don’t believe in those labels too much, but I can see what she meant. In this book we are deeply immersed in the moony and not very actiony heart of a teenaged girl for most of the story. I kind of loved that because I remember what that was like, but if you’re a “get on with it already” kind of person, this probably isn’t the book for you.
Whether you choose to read this book or not, please, for my sake and yours, keep asking why and pushing for the best world you can dream of.
To catch your own glimpse at what life was like during a “simpler time” and maybe recapture some hope, pick up a copy of Leaving Kent State from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.