Cbr11bingo Banned Book, bingo #10 & 11
A frequently challenged classic according to ALA
Slaughterhouse-Five propelled Kurt Vonnegut to fame when it was published in 1969. It has been banned in a number of school districts over the decades for language, sex and religious references. Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s attempt to write about his experience as a POW in Dresden during WWII, where he witnessed the firebombing that destroyed the city and caused the deaths of 135,000 people. Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war classic that shows through its daring narrative structure the inevitable, endless repetitiveness of history.
Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of a man/boy/baby named Billy Pilgrim who is “unstuck in time”. Billy served in the army briefly and without distinguishing himself before being captured and sent to a German POW camp. He is part of a group of American POWs who are sent to Dresden to work in a factory. He is also the boy whose father taught him to swim by throwing him into the deep end of the pool, and the successful middle aged businessman with a family, and the widower who needs to tell the world about his alien abduction and how time works. Billy Pilgrim is all of these things simultaneously. He understands this thanks to the Tralfamadorians, who abducted him and put him in their zoo for a time.
All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment and you will find that we are all … bugs in amber.
For them, people only appear to die. Death is one point in a very long span of things all happening at once; the corpse is still alive in the past. Tralfamadorians’ response to death is “So it goes,” a line which is a constant refrain, like an “amen,” in Slaughterhouse-Five whenever death is mentioned.
As we learn about Billy’s life, we see that Billy has always been disconnected in some way or another. He has no friends to speak of; even in the Army, Billy had no “buddies.” If anything he had enemies, notably Roland Weary, who blames Billy for his own death and requests that he be avenged. Billy seems to be an esteemed member of his community in Ilium, NY, where he owns and operates a profitable optometry business but frequently cries when alone. Due to a breakdown, Billy spends time in veteran’s hospital a few years after the war, and his roommate there introduces Billy to the novels of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout. Trout is not famous or successful, and the only place Billy ever sees his novels for sale is in the window of an “adult” store in New York. Yet Trout’s stories have great impact on Billy, and Vonnegut’s descriptions of their contents are a highlight of the novel for me. They are also a big part of why Slaughterhouse-Five is on the banned book list. Trout’s “The Gospel from Outer Space” claims that the New Testament is full of “slipshod storytelling” and its overall message, rather than encouraging people to be merciful, seems to be, “Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.” “The Gutless Wonder” is Trout’s story about a robot who
…looked like a human being, and could talk and dance and so on, and go out with girls. And nobody held it against him when he dropped jellied gasoline on people. But they found his halitosis unforgivable.
The reference to “jellied gasoline” brings the reader back to Dresden and the firebombing of that city. One character in the novel is irritated that the “success” of Dresden has not been celebrated more. After all, more people were killed there than in the Tokyo bombing or Hiroshima. When Billy and his fellow POWs are moved to Dresden, the Englishmen in their current camp tell them how fortunate they are since Dresden would not be a target for bombing; it had no war industries or enemy troop bases. In fact, the factory that the American POWs worked in produced vitamin-enriched malt syrup for pregnant women. When the bombing began, the Americans went into the meat lockers in Slaughterhouse Five, where they lived and worked. They survived by taking refuge in an abattoir while everyone above was immolated.
The full title of this novel is Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death. In the first chapter, before introducing us to Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut addresses the reader directly with the story of how he started to write this novel. While visiting an old war buddy named O’Hare, O’Hare’s wife expresses disgust at the way movies and books portray war as a glorious thing. She has children and doesn’t want them to be fed such propaganda. She is angry. Vonnegut assures her that that is not what his novel will do and promises to call it “The Children’s Crusade.” In the novel itself, one of the English camp prisoners, upon seeing the American POWs says, that they had imagined the war being fought by men like themselves, but
We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies.
Vonnegut’s overall message is about the stupidity of war and the fact that it always has been and seemingly always will be an exercise in getting revenge. The weak are not objects of pity or mercy; they are irritants and are abused even when they are on your side. Given that this novel came out shortly after the assassinations of RFK and MLK, while the US was sending young men to die Viet Nam, it must have blown readers away with its message. Even 50+ years later, it’s a powerful statement against glorifying war and remembering its human cost.