Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A banned book

VonnegutLast night, I finished Slaughterhouse-Five, and I wonder how I ever managed to miss reading it all these years. From the moment I started it, I’ve been doing contortions in order to kick myself in the ass for never reading it! I honestly thought I’d read it back in high school, but unless my memory of it was completely wiped in the subsequent years, I didn’t recall any of it.

I’ve had it on my Kindle for a while, and was finally moved to read it because of the recent news story about a school district in Missouri banning Slaughterhouse-Five because of a complaint from one fundamentalist parent. Apparently, this parent felt that the book included “false conceptions of American history and government or that teach principles contrary to Biblical morality and truth.” Jesus Squeeze Us, where do I begin?

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote the book about his experiences in WWII, especially his time in Dresden when it was bombed by the Allies. I honestly don’t see how an eyewitness to the bombing gave a “false concept” of it. I suspect it’s more of this parent thinking that a novel that lays out in sometimes excruciating detail the horrors and destruction and sheer awfulness of war just doesn’t jibe will with his jingoistic “my country right or wrong” schtick.

As for the part about being “contrary to Biblical morality and truth,” I almost feel sorry for this guy who doesn’t quite seem to get that not everything in this world hinges upon the Bible. Almost, but not quite. Because he is perpetrating his ignorance upon not only his own child, but upon every other child in that district, simply because the novel offends his sensibilities and his belief system. (At this point, I’d like to say a posthumous “Well done!” to Mr. Vonnegut—a fellow Hoosier—for getting this prig’s union suit in a bundle right up his tight ass.) I also wonder if he thinks the biblical concept of holy wars and Godly vengeance and smiting your enemies is fine and dandy?

Is this a novel for grade school or middle school kids to read? No, I don’t think it is, because there is some rather graphic imagery and language in it, as well as themes that are better understood by those who are older. High school kids? Absolutely. Especially those young kids who, for whatever reason, are unable or incapable of furthering their education and find themselves with no other option but to join the military. Any kid who commits to being cannon fodder in wars just or unjust should get an idea of how it’s probably going to be.

What’s that? I should “support our troops?” You keep saying that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means. I believe we need to compensate our troops appropriately and well, and we need to give them excellent medical and psychological support when they get back, as well as a chance to go back to school if they want to and get a good job no matter what level of education. However, I think the best way to support them is to not send them off to stupid wars in the first place. WWII wasn’t a stupid war, of course, but the horrors of any war don’t change over the years. Any parent who cheers as their kid marches off to war in Iraq or Afghanistan is fucked in the head, if you ask me.

Vonnegut2But I digress. Vonnegut wrote a chronicle of his time in Germany, in a city which we bombed the hell out of, killing tens of thousands of civilians. His writing is clear, concise, matter-of-fact, and conveys the sheer madness of it all, and he was there. I think Vonnegut earned the right for people to read his story, including young people who are on the verge of entering the voting population and the merry world of adulthood.

Whenever I read stories about books being challenged and/or banned, I wonder what the challengers are afraid of. In this case, it seems to be him being afraid that his child will be subjected to some harsh truths, ones that don’t fit tidily into what he has tried to teach at home; he seems to be afraid that such knowledge might cause questions, ones that I suspect he is afraid that he can’t answer. What is really sad to me is that some of these questions truly have no answer. Sometimes we can only speculate, especially when it comes to things like war and hatred and man’s inhumanity to man, whether in the name of political righteousness or religion.

War is an ugly business (and sometimes I’m quite sure that ‘business’ is very much the correct word), and any book that gets young adults to think about just how goddamn ugly it is is fine with me.

Vonnegut3I’ll wind this up with a happy ending. When the ban in the Missouri school district was reported, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis received funds from an anonymous donor (no, it wasn’t me!) to send a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five
to any student of appropriate age who wanted to read it in the district. Donations have been plentiful enough that they added this on their page:

Due to the overwhelming response we have received from supporters, the KVML is putting our additional donations toward the creation of a banned book exhibit for the KVML and a Banned Book Response Team to help other communities when the hint of banned books arises. We’ll share with them a toolkit for how to deal with the situation based on what we have learned from this situation. Many, many volunteers are stepping forward to help with this important cause. The KVML extends our thanks to all of you for your support in helping us protect First Amendment rights. Thanks to you, we’ll be ready the next time someone tries to mess with Kurt Vonnegut.

Damn straight. I’ll be making my donation. If you’re so inclined, I’m sure yours would be appreciated, too. We cannot cave to those who would banish ideas from our classrooms and disallow questions that they don’t want to answer...questions that everyone should have the right to ask.


  1. An awesome read, and it is a shame that more to not require it to be required reading. I am proud we are now doners!

  2. I found Vonnegut in my early twenties and count his work as foundational to my education. Before Vonnegut, I had a little trouble thinking for myself, good Southern girl that I was in the sixties. Slaughterhouse Five was the first book I read of Vonnegut's and it spun my head around. Suddenly it was imperative that I hear my own thoughts, attend to my own impressions. What a gift!

    Phrases, images of his are permanent parts of my wiring now. "Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt." "So it goes." "Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops."

    It was true love by page two for me.

  3. Vonnegut is usually on reading lists for high schools, not lower grades. So yeah, you're right about the appropriateness.

    My English class my sophomore year of high school was a speech class. (The teacher was the coach of the forensics team.) One quarter our theme was freedom of speech. We read a lot of stuff on philosophical ideas and about banned books.

    I love Vonnegut but never have read Slaughterhouse Five. My first book of his was Galapagos.

  4. I'm going to have to read this book for sure! The parent complaining about it bugs me big time-they don't like it because it doesn't conform to their lilly white version of what they thought the war was really like...probably thought the Holocaust was just a "little disagreement" too:pfft.

  5. Screw Missouri -- it's the most backward, evangelical, meth-addled, teabagging state in the midwest. All the schools are failing.
    KV rocks! Ever read Galapogos? It's a mind f*ck!


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