Guest blogger Cindy Dashnaw recounts last year’s Slaughterhouse-Five removal from the library of the Republic, Missouri high school. The school board’s vote to remove the book from the high school library took place one year ago today.
In Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time” from shell shock, doomed to relive parts of his life over and over. This literary device was a way for Vonnegut to “impress upon readers that we keep making the same mistake, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” says Julia Whitehead, executive director of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.
Ironic, then, that in banning Slaughterhouse-Five from its libraries and classrooms on July 25, 2011, the school board of Republic High School in southwestern Missouri was just the latest to repeat a mistake that continues to be made.
During World War II, Dresden, Germany, became a haven for some 600,000 refugees after allied forces bombed the city. Kurt Vonnegut was huddled captive in a former meat locker when the bombs fell; his son, Mark Vonnegut, tells how, following the bombing, his father was “forced to go into civilian bomb shelters and bring out rotting and dead children and their pets and their parents, and he was a 21-year-old kid. It had a huge effect on him.”
When Kurt Vonnegut finally returned home to Indianapolis, he went to the library to see how the local newspaper had covered the bombing of Dresden. He was shocked to discover it had never been mentioned.
More than half a century later, students at Republic High School in Missouri were about to have a similar experience: being unable to find Vonnegut’s novel based on his time in Dresden because Slaughterhouse-Five had been banned.
In response, Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library went into action. The Vonnegut Library offered to give a free copy of the book to any Republic High School student who requested one. Support began pouring in for the Vonnegut Library’s efforts: Donors gave $5 each to pay for shipping the books to students, supporters wrote more than 2,500 letters of support (which the library answered individually), and people began conversations about how to create a lasting impact with their efforts.
To date, the Vonnegut Library has put a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five into 75 Missouri students’ hands, and the offer is still open. Republic High School students need simply email firstname.lastname@example.org with their name, address and grade level to receive a copy.
Ban not truly lifted
Meanwhile, the Missouri school board has modified its position: Instead of an outright ban, copies of Slaughterhouse-Five have been placed in a “secure” location in the library and can be checked out – but only by parents.
In the Vonnegut Library’s view, the ban remains in place as long as barriers to student access exist.
Vonnegut expressed it best in 1973 when he wrote to Charles McCarthy, chairman of the school board in Drake, N.D., where Slaughterhouse-Five copies had recently been burned in the school’s furnace:
Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.
The Vonnegut Library is doing all it can to make sure that when people and students go to their libraries, they will find important works such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. We are proud to carry on work that was so vitally important to Vonnegut himself.