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NIU's Days of Rage: Alum returns to campus to debut Vietnam-era novel

DeKALB – For students in America during the Vietnam War, the draft lottery was like “a game show of death.”

So said Rita Dragonette, a 1972 alumna of Northern Illinois University and author of “The Fourteenth of September.” Her new historical fiction novel details the lives of students during the war’s sixth-month period from the beginning of the draft lottery Dec. 1, 1969, to the Kent State shootings May 4, 1970, when four student protesters were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard.

Dragonette, who lives in Chicago, is on a tour for her debut novel, and will make a stop Thursday in DeKalb for a reading and teach-in on the NIU campus.

Dragonette’s novel is semi-autobiographical, and presents a unique point of view of the war not often seen in historical retellings: a woman’s noncombat account. Her protagonist, Pfc. Judy Talton, enrolls in “Central Illinois University” (the fictional version of NIU) on a military scholarship. As she experiences college life through the lens of the Vietnam War and the draft, her view of war and politics changes dramatically. Talton feels conflicted, torn between her commitment to the military and her personal and evolving views of war.

Dragonette, who calls her book a “coming-of-conscience” novel instead of just a coming-of-age story, attended NIU on a military scholarship to become a nurse, although she wanted to major in English and eventually did. Both her parents served during World War II. Her father saw combat in Europe, and her mother served as a nurse on the front lines in Germany. She wrote a lot of herself into Talton’s character.

“[Judy] feels like the decisions she has to make are going to define who she is for the rest of her life, which parallels who we are as a country,” Dragonette said. “Who are we if we stay in Vietnam, and what are we if we leave?”

The novel took more than a decade for Dragonette to write. She said for her and her classmates, as the war escalated, the draft lottery was considered a death sentence.

“They took all the birth dates [for our age groups], starting with September 14, and all the people eligible for the draft in that time frame, and threw them in a bowl, and then picked the numbers out one by one,” Dragonette said.

Dragonette remembers vividly what life was like as a female student during the draft, and calls those six months “the character-defining months of my generation.”

“There’s a scene in the book that exemplifies what it was like to be [on NIU campus during the first draft day] as a woman because you weren’t going to have your number pulled but everyone you knew was,” Dragonette said.

“The Fourteenth of September,” published Sept. 18 by She Writes Press, is available nationwide on Amazon and at retail and independent bookstores, or on Dragonette’s website.

The reading and signing begins at 12:30 p.m. in Altgeld Hall, Room 315. The “NIU’s Days of Rage: 1970” teach-in panel begins at 4:30 p.m. in Cole Hall, Room 100.

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