Dakota Datebook

Slaughterhouse Five

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


The high school in Drake, North Dakota, garnered national attention on this date in 1973, after the Drake Board of Education ordered the burning of thirty-six copies of Kurt Vonnegut’s controversial novel, Slaughterhouse Five. The story broke only a day before the author’s 51st birthday.

A combination of historical events and science-fiction, Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of protagonist Billy Pilgrim. Pilgrim, like Vonnegut himself, was a soldier during World War II and witnessed the bombing of Dresden. This event causes the character to become “unstuck” with modern time and reality. The novel then shifts between two realities, as Pilgrim inhabits both Earth and an alien planet in a case of double-existence. Because of its pessimism, graphic portrayal, and dark humor, the book has been the subject of controversy and censorship since its initial publication in 1969.

In 1973, 26-year old English teacher Bruce Severy assigned the novel to his high school class. Although most of the class loved the book, when they were nearly a third of the way through it, one girl mentioned the author’s use of obscene language to her mother. The parent complained to the school board, which quickly condemned the book, and on November 7, ordered the school custodian, Mrs. Sheldon Summers, to burn all thirty-two copies. Some of the students hid their copies, however, and a locker search was ordered. Once all of the books had been retrieved, Mrs. Summers burned the books in the school’s incinerator. Along with Slaughterhouse Five, the school ordered the burning of James Dickey’s Deliverance and an anthology of short stories. When Vonnegut read about the incident in the New York Times, and learned that not one of the members of the school board had even read his book, he wrote a letter to Charles McCarthy, the head of the Drake Board of Education. He berated the board for burning a book that they had never read, especially one that argues for human compassion and responsibility. Vonnegut added that members should “…resolve to expose children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions.”

The book has continued to be challenged in schools around the country. It has faced censorship in Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, and Illinois. However, the majority of banning attempts have been overturned.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job








This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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