"Slaughterhouse Five - The Children's Crusade; A Duty-Dance with Death" is a book written by author Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1969. It is the semi-autobiographical story of the Dresden firebombing during World War II. The story begins with Kurt Vonnegut's voice and moves to the main character, Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut had been a prisoner of war when he was barely twenty years old. He was sent to forced labor and near starvation in Dresden, the capital of the German State of Saxony.
In the second chapter, the story turns to Billy Pilgrim, with Vonnegut as a minor character. Billy was also taken as a prisoner after the Battle of the Bulge, he was transported to Dresden by train, which was attacked by allied forces, and held in Dresden, which was firebombed by allied forces. The irony is that Billy was almost killed twice by friendly fire, and not by Germans.
Billy is a time traveler, who jumps from event to event in the story in a haphazard way. But, every time he goes back to an event, the time becomes linear. Billy is taken by an alien race called the Tralfamadores and put in a zoo, where he is given a young woman as a mate. But, his time jumping means that he would be there one minute, then be in the POW camp the next, or in his life as an optometrist with his wife and children. Or, maybe, his head wounds from a plane crash, his post-traumatic stress disorder from his time as a POW, and other things that could lead to psychological trauma damaged his mind, and the whole story Billy tells is the result of delusions.
"Slaughterhouse Five" is written in the voice of Kurt Vonnegut. His plan with the book is to write about the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II. In 1967 the Guggenheim Foundation sponsored a trip for he and Bernard V. O'Hare to visit the Dresden Slaughterhouse where they were held prisoner during World War II. Along the way the two men began a conversation with the taxi driver, a Communist named Gerhard Muller, who, along with Mary, Bernard V. O'Hare's wife, he dedicated Slaughterhouse Five. Later Muller sends a Christmas card to O'Hare with wishes for world peace. Vonnegut has tried often to write about his time during the War, but hasn't been able to put pen to paper. He tries to write an outline on a sheet of wall paper, but he can't get it to work, still. His anti-war stance only makes it tougher. And writing about war with intent of stopping it, is like writing about glaciers with intent of stopping their melting.
In the years since the War Vonnegut spent time as a student of anthropology at the University of Chicago, he was also a police reporter, and he was in public relations for General Electric in New York. But he kept researching for the book he wanted to write about Dresden. When he contacted the United States Air Force, he found out it was still classified. Around 1964, Vonnegut visited Bernard O'Hare, there he met Mary, who made him vow not to write them all as heroes, she pointed out that they were all babies at the time. Instead, she told him about the Children's Crusade. His studies went to an earlier bombing in Dresden in 1760.
Vonnegut was teaching at a Writer's Workshop in Iowa when he landed a book deal for three books. The first book was "Slaughterhouse Five". Since there is nothing smart to say about a massacre, the book is jumbled. On his way to Dresden to research his book, Vonnegut stays in a hotel where he loses track of time and studies the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible. He compares himself to Lot's wife, looking back and turning into a pillar of salt.
In chapter two, the story shifts to the story of Billy Pilgrim. We move randomly through his life, starting with a quick overview. Billy was born in 1922, in Ilium, New York. Growing up he was small and weak. After high school, Billy began training as an optometrist. Then he was drafted into the Army. After his service in Germany, Billy has a nervous collapse. The treatment was electric shock therapy. After recovery, Billy marries, has two children and becomes a wealthy optometrist.
In 1968, Billy survives a plane crash in Vermont, and while he is healing, his wife dies in an accident. When he returns home to New York, Billy goes on a radio station to talk about his abduction by aliens in 1967. His daughter discovers his rantings and takes him home, worried about his sanity. His next move is to write a letter to the paper about the aliens.
On the day the article is published Billy is working on a letter about his experiences on the planet Tralfamadore. He thinks his information will console people by explaining to them the mysteries of time. When his twenty-one-year-old daughter arrives with questions about the article, she tries to get him to talk to her. She is worried about her father.
Billy begins with his recount of his time in the Army. He was training to be an assistant to the Chaplain in South Carolina. There he met three soldiers. One of them, Roland Weary, saved his life a few times, in hopes of winning an accommodation. The first time Billy time shifts is when he is out walking with these men. He stops to rest by a tree and is suddenly a little boy being thrown into the pool by his father. The "sink or swim" method of swimming lessons. Then he travels to 1965 visiting his mother in a nursing home. Then he is in 1958 at a Little League Banquet for his son. Next, he finds himself in 1961, drunk and cheating on his wife. After he falls asleep, he wakes to shaking by Roland and he is back behind enemy lines.
Two scouts leave Billy and Roland, then while Roland is complaining about always being left behind, Billy time shifts again and finds himself in 1957, giving a speech as the newly elected president of the Ilium Lions Club. Then suddenly, he is back in Germany being captured with Roland. The two men are taken to a house filled with prisoners. When Billy goes to sleep, he wakes in his optometrist office in the middle of an eye-exam. He learns that he has been falling asleep at work. When he closes his eyes, he is a prisoner again and being shaken awake for transport. A German photographer uses him to stage a photograph of him surrendering to the Germans.
Suddenly he is back in 1967 leaving the banquet. His son is in Vietnam and his daughter is getting married. He is a wealthy man. Billy goes home to his expensive house and falls asleep weeping in his expensive bed. When he wakes he is back in Germany, marching with other POW's. He notices Roland in front of him. Roland's feet are bloody because he was forced to trade his boots to a German for the man's clogs. They are loaded into box cars. The space is tight, so they take turns sleeping and standing. They pass around a helmet for a chamber pot. After two days the train begins to move. When Billy closes his eyes he is transported to the night he is captured by the Tralfamadorians.
On the night of his daughter's wedding, Billy is waiting for the space ship that he knows is coming after him. He sits down in front of the television and watches a documentary on World War II. A small displacement in time, makes him view it backward. Then he goes out into the backyard to wait for the space-ship.
While he is on the ship, he travels back to the box-car. By day nine people are dying, including Roland, who makes it known to all around him that Billy is responsible. Paul Lazzaro, a car thief from Cicero, Illinois vows to make Billy pay. The box-car reaches the POW camp on the tenth night. As Billy and the other prisoners are being deloused in a shower, Billy is transported back to an infant when his mother had just bathed him, then he is a middle aged man on the golf court. Then he is on the space ship, where the Tralfamadores tell him that he is in amber and they view time in four dimensions. They see the past, future and present all happening at once. They tell him that Earth is the only planet with free will.
On the ship, Billy is kept in a zoo. Billy skips back to spots in his childhood, then he is in the POW camp again. The prisoners all have their names entered into a ledger. The Americans are put with the British soldiers. During a play, Billy starts to laugh uncontrollably and is taken to the hospital where he is given a shot and then wakes up in a Veteran's Mental Ward.
In his last year of optometry school, Billy checked himself in. While he was there he made friends with Eliot Rosewater, who introduced him to books by a Kilgore Trout. The books were clever, but poorly written science-fiction. When his mother comes to visit, Billy pulls the blanket over his head and wakes up in Germany. Edgar Derby is keeping watch over Billy's sickbed, he remembers Derby dying in front of a firing squad in a few days from then. Next, he wakes up in the Veteran's Hospital. Valencia, his fiancee is visiting and they discuss the author, Trout with Rosewater.
Next Billy is back in his zoo enclosure aboard the ship. It is like a furnished living room. The Tralfamadores discuss their race with him, and how their world works. After he praises them for a peaceful life, they correct him by saying they do have war sometimes, and one of their pilots will end the universe by accident.
Billy's next jump is to his wedding night. Valencia asks him about the war, and he skips back to the prison camp, in his hospital bed. When he goes to the bathroom, he finds another soldier vomiting. It is Vonnegut. The next morning, Paul Lazzaro arrives in the infirmary. He is unconscious after trying to steal from an Englishman. After falling asleep, Billy wakes up in 1968. His daughter is scolding him for letting the fire in the grate go out, and he is writing a letter about his experiences aboard the space-ship. After his daughter puts him to bed, he wakes up back on the space-ship. The Tralfamadorians are throwing a screaming woman into his enclosure. She is an American actress named Montana Wildhack. She is to be Billy's mate. After some time together, she begins to like him, and they start to sleep together.
The next day, Billy wakes up back in 1968. He gives an eye exam to a boy whose father had died in Vietnam, and shares some of what he learned from the Tralfamadorians. The boy's mother thinks Billy is insane and leaves. They call his daughter to take him home. Billy wakes up back in the prison camp. This is the day they are to be transported to Dresden. There are two lumps of something in his coat, but he knows not to make notice of them. They will come in handy later. Next time he wakes up, Edgar Derby and Paul Lazzaro are there. The Englishmen are digging a new latrine, the old one will be for the Americans. Paul says he will kill the Englishman that beat him up, after the war. Then he reminds Billy that he promised Roland that he would kill Billy, and warns him to be careful when answering his door after the war.
Billy already knows Paul will make good on his threat. He has already experienced his death and knows that Paul kills him with a snipers bullet after he his delivering a speech on time travel. He also knows that in 1976 China dropped a hydrogen bomb on Chicago, and America is split up into twenty nations so it can't threaten war. He recorded these events and left the tape in a safety deposit box. When the prisoners arrive in Dresden, Billy is dressed in scrounged clothes and looks like a clown. The city is beautiful, and Vonnegut calls it Oz when he gets off the train. There are eight soldiers to guard one hundred prisoners. Billy and his group are led to the slaughterhouse which will be their quarters.
Twenty-five years later, Billy is boarding a plane. Valencia is waving goodbye. The plane is full of optometrist including Valencia's father. Billy knows the plane will crash. The Tralfamadorians tell him that all the people and animals are machines. The plane crashes at Sugarbush Mountain in Vermont. Billy has a cracked skull and is rescued by some skiers. A famous neurosurgeon operates on him and he is unconscious for two days. During that time he dreams. Then he is in Dresden. The POW's are given menial jobs. Billy is working in a syrup factory. The syrup is to supplement the diet of pregnant women. Billy and some of the men sneak spoonfuls throughout the day with spoons that are hidden around the work area. Billy is so weak with hunger that his body shivers when he eats it. He passes a spoonful out the window to Derby who bursts into tears of joy. An air raid siren goes off and they go into a meat locker. But, Billy knows the firebombing won't happen until the next night.
He dozes off in the meat locker and wakes with his daughter's exasperation. She blames Kilgore Trout for Billy's talk of space ships. Billy remembers meeting Trout. The man managed newspaper boys in Ilium and was surprised Billy had read any of his books. Billy invited him to his eighteenth wedding anniversary, where Trout was a hit with the optometrists. Billy goes upstairs to use the bathroom and walks in on his son playing guitar. Then he lays down on his bed and thinks about the firebombing. The Americans and four German guards hide in the meat locker. When they emerge after the attack, they are all shocked at the destruction.
Next, Billy is on the space ship. Montana is six months pregnant and asks him to tell her a story. He tells her about the firebombing of Dresden and the smoking logs, that were actually people. The group wanders around looking for food and shelter. They find an inn in a neighborhood that wasn't destroyed. The blind innkeeper gives them soup and a bed. He tells them in German, “Good night, Americans. Sleep well.”
Valencia drives to the hospital after the plane crash. She has a minor accident, not knowing she has damaged her car and will die of carbon monoxide poisoning in the hospital parking lot. Meanwhile, Billy is time traveling and wakes up in the hospital bed. He wants to tell everyone about the Tralfamadorians, but no one will listen, they think he damaged his head. Then a man in the bed next to him is doing research for a history of the United States Army Air Corps during World War II. He thinks the Dresden firebombing was a successful maneuver. When Billy tries to tell him he was there, the man does not want to listen.
Billy then travels to Dresden two days before the end of the war. The Germans are preparing to leave because the Russians are coming. Then he is back in the hospital bed, next to the man writing the history and asking questions about Dresden. Billy's daughter takes him home, where he will be cared for by a nurse. He can't wait to tell people about the Tralfamadorians and sneaks out to the radio station in New York. When Billy arrives at the city, he notices four of Trout's books in a window of a pornographic store. He enters and sees that one of the books is about a man and woman who are captured by aliens and kept in a zoo-like enclosure. Then he sees a headline on a pornographic magazine that asks what happened to Montana Wildhack. He watches a few minutes of a video with a teenage Montana.
There is a radio station near the hotel Billy is staying in, so he joins a group of reporters who are discussing the state of the novel. When his turn to speak comes around Billy tells them about the Tralfamadores and Montana Wildhack. They think he is insane and escort him out of the building. Then he is on the ship again, and Montana is breastfeeding their baby. She tells him she knows he was time traveling again, and he sees she is wearing a necklace with the Serenity Prayer, just like the plaque he had in his optometrist's office.
The year is now 1968. Billy is remembering that the Tralfamodorians were more interested in Darwin than Jesus. They liked Darwin's theories. Billy finds one of Trout's books that tells of aliens who wanted to talk about Darwin and golf. Here Vonnegut speaks to the reader and says that he would not be pleased to discover Billy only learned about eternal existence from the Tralfamadorians. But, Vonnegut is happy for the good times in his life, like returning to America with O'Hare and eating salami sandwiches on the plane.
Billy travels back to Dresden and it is two days after the bombing. He, Vonnegut and O'Hare are all retrieving bodies. One of the POW's vomits so much that he dies. When it becomes obvious they can not bury the bodies before they begin to rot, the German's order for them to be cremated with flame throwers. Derby is caught with a tea pot he found in the rubble and is put before a firing squad.
As spring approaches the Germans leave to fight the Russians or run. Billy finds the wagon shaped like a coffin and horse that will provide their transportation from Dresden. He hears a bird call.
Billy Pilgrim - the main character in the book. He was a prisoner of war during World War II in Dresden Germany. After the war, he became a respected optometrist until he was taken away in a space ship by the Tralfamadorians. He became a time traveler. He was unstuck in time and jumped about from major event in his life to major event. With each jump he would experience moments in time then when he returned after other stops, he would experience the next moment.
Kurt Vonnegut - the author and a minor character in the story. His presence lent an authenticity to the story since he was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the firebombing in World War II. By writing himself into the story, he makes Billy's story of time and space travel either believable or the dreams of a man who is suffering from brain damage and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bernard V O'Hare - Vonnegut's war time friend. He is a real person who helps him write about their experiences in the Dresden firebombing.
Mary O'Hare - Bernard's wife. She tells Vonnegut not to romanticize the firebombing with his book. But to relay how bad war is. He dedicates the book to her because he agrees.
Gerhard Muller - the German taxi driver that Vonnegut and O'Hare strike up a conversation with while touring Dresden and researching the novel. He sends Christmas cards to O'Hare that wish him peace. Vonnegut is so moved by this gesture, that he dedicates part of his book to him.
Roland Weary - captured at the same time Billy is. Although he wants to be a decorated hero, he dies of gangrene from the sores caused by the shoes he is forced to wear after a German soldier trades his clogs for Roland's Army boots.
Paul Lazzaro - a car thief who ends up as a prisoner of war with Roland. When Roland dies, he makes Paul swear revenge on Billy, who he blamed for his death. Many years later, Paul shoots Billy and kills him, finally completing his promise.
Edgar Derby - another prisoner of war, that survived the firebombing only to be killed by firing squad for taking a tea pot from the debris of the attack.
Valencia Merble - Billy's wife. She loves him and provides a warm home for him and their two children. But, he is distant and spends very little time with her. She dies quietly, but horribly and alone, in the parking lot of the hospital where she rushed to be near her husband. He is in the building physically, but time traveling.
Tralfamadorians - aliens shaped like toilet plungers. They have one eye and it is in their palm. They take Billy and put him in a habitat in their zoo. Their life philosophies dictate how Billy tries to live his life, and he travels the world delivering lectures on the subjects. They see time as moments that happen all at the same time.
Eliot Rosewater - an Army veteran who is in the bed next to Billy at the Veteran's Administration Hospital. Eliot is also suffering from PTSD. He helps Billy to find escape in the fantastic stories written by Kilgore Trout.
Kilgore Trout - a bitter unappreciated writer of fantastical science fiction. Although his stories are imaginative, his writing is terrible. He is a character that appears in other Vonnegut books and represents him in them.
Montana Wildhack - a young actress that is captured by the Tralfamadorians and given to Billy as his mate. He gains her trust and she gives birth to his child. But, she may be a figment of his imagination spurred on by the magazine and movie he watched in a pornographic shop.
Kurt Vonnegut Biography
Kurt Vonnegut (1922 – 2007) was born on November 11, in 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was descended from German immigrants who settled in Indiana in the middle of the nineteenth century. Vonnegut dropped out of college to join the Army during World War II. He was shipped to Germany, where he was taken a prisoner of war and sent to Dresden. There he survived the firebombing of Dresden and wrote about it in his book, Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut's parents felt such animosity Germany, that they never taught him German, or kept any German books in the house.
Vonnegut wrote for his high school newspaper and found it easy. He believed everyone had something they did naturally and wondered why other people found it so hard. For him, is was writing.
When he attended Cornell, he joined the Cornell Daily Sun. He quickly rose up the ranks to the editor. As a pacifist, Kurt was against the war. But after Pearl Harbor, the whole nation was ready to fight. Kurt was a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps while in college, but bad grades and an article that was satirical led him to be put on academic probation. Vonnegut dropped out of college, lost his student deferment, and instead of waiting to be drafted, enlisted.
He was stationed in Indiana and was so close to home that he could almost sleep there and report for duty the next morning. Returning for Mother's Day weekend, Kurt found his mother's body. She had committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. Three months later he was sent to Germany with the 106th. His unit participated in the Battle of the Bulge but was supposed to be in a safe zone due their lack of experience. That did not work. They were overwhelmed by German troops. Five hundred were killed and six thousand were captured.
The train that transported the prisoners was attacked by Englishman killing one hundred and fifty prisoners. Then Vonnegut was taken to Dresden with other prisoners and put to hard labor. While there the city was attacked by Allied forces killing thousands of people. After making his way to a repatriation camp in France, Vonnegut served out the rest of his time stateside. He was discharged in 1945. Afterward he married Jane Marie Cox in September of 1945. She was his high school girlfriend who he had known since kindergarten.
Vonnegut studied anthropology at the University of Chicago on the GI Bill and worked at the Chicago City News Bureau at night. He wrote a few pieces that he sold to magazines. When his thesis wasn't accepted by the college, he dropped out, and his wife quit when she became pregnant.
Vonnegut went on to work at GE and continued writing. Soon his writing becomes lucrative enough for him to quit his job and take his family to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where he settled to write. His breezy style and innovative subject matter gained him a wide following. Before Slaughterhouse Five he wrote a few books that didn't do well, but that book hit at the right time during the Vietnam conflict. Its anti war message was well received. It hit the best seller list and was instantly famous. He was invited to give lectures, speeches, and commencements. Kurt was also awarded numerous awards for his writing.
Kurt Vonnegut's style of writing was usually in the science fiction realm. He was satirical and wrote a lot of gallows humor. During his lifetime he wrote fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five non-fiction books. Kurt Vonnegut passed away from complications after a fall in his New York brownstone when he was eighty-four years old. But, his genius will live on forever.
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