Book Review: “Kent State” by Deborah Wiles

Different voices. Different perspectives.

Like a dissonant Greek chorus, the voices in Deborah Wiles’ work of YA historical fiction, Kent State, rage and argue in poetic free verse as they narrate the events surrounding the Kent State University shootings of May 4, 1970. Using a range of fonts to differentiate speakers, Wiles employs the voices of multiple college students (including a member of the Black United Students group), of townspeople, and of the National Guard to convey the confusion that led to the killing of four students and the wounding of nine others when the Ohio National Guard converged on the campus that fateful weekend. In her telling, Wiles weaves in a sense of the chaos of the era, the varying attitudes toward war and civil disobedience, the ongoing civil rights issues, and the fragile nature of history with its faulty memories and competing narratives. Wiles even inserts the reader into the story, probing the reader to define how such tragedies will be kept and remembered as time marches forward.

Fifty years have passed since the Kent State shootings, but Wiles’ depiction feels timely, as our country grapples with questions around activism, first amendment rights, racial equality, and police violence. For readers who did not live through the times, Wiles offers a useful opening “prelude” to set the historical context, and she provides a lengthy “elegy” describing how she researched and retold the controversial and often conflicting accounts of that weekend. With anger and turmoil so elegantly rendered, Kent State is an unforgettable and eye-opening work for readers of all ages.

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