Deborah Wiles was 16 years old on May 4, 1970, when she heard the news that the National Guard had opened fire on college students who had been protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Ohio. Four students were killed and nine were wounded, one of whom was left paralyzed. Two of the students killed had simply been walking to class. Fifty years later, the award-winning author revisits the tragedy in Kent State, an extraordinary and passionate recounting written in free verse from multiple points of view. “The earthquake of its enormity has never left me,” Wiles reflects in an author’s note.
Like a meticulous theater director, Wiles opens by carefully setting the stage, then coming out from behind the curtain and addressing readers directly. “You are new here,” she writes, “and we don’t want to scare you away, / but we want you to know the truth.” She explains that the military draft provoked angst and uncertainty across Kent State’s campus, and describes mounting student anger at Nixon’s decision to bomb Cambodia.
Wiles’ decision to write in free verse, rather than prose, effectively harnesses her meticulous research and enables her to convey her four-day chronology of events through collective, often conflicting, voices. She captures the vigorous debates and frequent clashes that occurred between these voices, which include white and black students, townies and National Guard soldiers. The opinionated participants remain anonymous on the page, distinguished through careful and varied typography, but together, they form a diverse chorus that offers readers a mix of opinion, memory, fact and misinformation. Wiles also intersperses the lyrics of protest songs through the book, including Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” which was written by Neil Young in the aftermath of what happened and, as Wiles explains, “helped change the national conversation about the war in Vietnam.”
Yet always at the forefront of this chorus are the victims, to whom Wiles dedicates Kent State. Allison Krause was “attractive in every way” and died in her boyfriend’s arms. She was 19 years old. Jeffrey Miller had recently chatted with his mother by phone, telling her, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to get hurt.” He was 20 years old. Bill Schroeder had just met with his ROTC advisor and eventually planned to help frontline solders as a military psychologist. He was 19 years old. Sandy Scheuer was a “delightful square” who loved Dinah Shore and Perry Como. She was 20 years old. Wiles doesn’t mince words when describing the circumstances of their deaths: “America turned on its unarmed children, in their schoolyard, and killed them.”
In Kent State, Deborah Wiles has created a powerful work of art that serves as both as a historical record of a national tragedy and a call to action for every American, but especially for young people. After all, as she writes, “It has always been the young / who are our champions / of justice. / Who stand at the vanguard / of change.”