** This suggestion was posted during Banned Books Week 2015 **
It’s easy to understand why parents might not want their teens reading Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Slaughterhouse-Five: it’s full of obscenities, sex, and blasphemous statements. But when you consider that the book’s alternative title is The Children’s Crusade, the whole argument against teens reading it begins to break down.
Vonnegut was only 23 when he was captured and held as a prisoner of war by the Germans during World War II. His captors took him to Dresden, Germany where he witnessed the war’s most controversial Allied attack: a beautiful city full of artistic marvels and innocent civilians was razed in multiple bombings over a two-day period. After the war, the Dresden bombings lapsed into relative obscurity. Vonnegut had a hard time getting official details about what exactly happened there. All he had were his own terrible memories.
The most powerful message of Slaughterhouse-Five is its anti-war stance: nothing about war (and there’s a lot of war) in this book is portrayed in a virtuous light. But it’s laid out in the first chapter that writing an anti-war book is a futile effort; wars are “as easy to stop as glaciers.” So why would Vonnegut spend twenty agonizing years reliving his wartime experiences just to write a futile book? You could argue that the famously fatalistic Vonnegut wrote it because he had to. But a better argument, and a more hopeful argument, is that he didn’t actually think it was futile at all.
Billy Pilgrim, the main character of Slaughterhouse-Five, is supposed to be a virtuous soldier in World War II, but he ends up as just a child fighting with and against other children for reasons he can’t fathom in the heat of battle. The experience traumatizes him so badly that he becomes “unstuck in time” and forced to relive key moments in his life over and over. Take out the fantastic elements from Billy Pilgrim’s time traveling and how is it any different from someone involuntarily replaying traumatic events in his own head? Billy is later abducted by aliens called the Tralfamadorians who by their very nature can view time in four dimensions, seeing all things at all times; this ability gives the aliens a fatalistic worldview that Billy also adopts, and all the myriad deaths in the book are punctuated by the dispassionate phrase “so it goes”.
When I was a college student and reading this book for a second time, I thought that if everyone in the world read Slaughterhouse-Five, then no one would want to wage war anymore. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that there are people in the world that don’t want anyone, but especially children, to read this book at all. I thought, how can people be against an anti-war book? So it goes.
Slaughterhouse-Five will not end all war, but writing it was not a futile effort. At the very least, I will always carry its message with me and will do my best to pass it on to the next generation against any criticism.