A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Kurt Vonnegut's classic science fiction novel Slaughterhouse-Five makes an anti-war statement that is powerful in any generation. For example, Vonnegut's irreverent description of the conditions endured by soldiers, prisoners of war, and the victims of the Dresden bombing said as much about the Vietnam War taking place when the book was published (1969) as it did about the author's real-life experience in Dresden in 1945. Billy Pilgrim, the central character of the novel, believes he's become "unstuck in time" and space, so that a mere moment on Earth equals days or weeks of time with aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. On Earth, Billy suffers from what we now recognize as PTSD; he has built a life -- with a wife, children, and career as an optometrist -- that he seems to watch from the outside, and that Vonnegut regards with bemused distance. Billy's consciousness continually changes, moving in and out of his "real" life, his time on Tralfamadore, and memories of wartime. Meanwhile, the narrator breaks character often enough for readers to know that his voice is that of Vonnegut, who actually was on the ground during the Dresden bombing. The novel includes all the brutal violence of war and then some: People and animals are shot and killed, tortured, boiled, and bombed. Corpses are unearthed and burned after the bombing because they're too numerous and difficult to extract where they lay. However, Vonnegut's narrative is also veiled in gallows humor; he always keeps the reader, and the horrors of war, at an arm's length. The book includes rude language and profanity ("s--t," "piss," "f--k," etc.), as well as nongraphic sexual content, such as the mention of men being aroused, ejaculating, and viewing pornographic photographs. Characters also drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes in the book, which is at once an inventive masterpiece of science fiction and an uncompromising depiction of the inhumanity of war.
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What's the story?
The narrator of SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE tells readers about the life of World War II veteran Billy Pilgrim. Billy served in the U.S. Army and, as a prisoner of war, was housed in a facility called Slaughterhouse-Five during the bombing of Dresden, Germany. He has experienced intense violence, cruelty, and inhumane conditions. At some point, he becomes "unstuck in time" so that his consciousness moves between real time, past events, and his time-and-space travel to the planet Tralfamadore. After the war, Billy is discharged and builds a life in his hometown of Ilium, New York, with his wife, Valencia, two children, and a successful optometry practice. He's hospitalized for a period after a head injury, during which time he becomes friends with Elliot Rosewater (a holdover from Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, published in 1965) and develops a penchant for the works of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout (who also appears in Vonnegut's 1973 novel, Breakfast of Champions). Meanwhile, Pilgrim also becomes "unstuck in time"; he's abducted by aliens and often travels to and from Tralfamadore, and in and out of the present time. Billy frustrates his children, who find him distant and absent-minded. While the narrator feels compelled to record his experiences on the ground in Dresden, Billy feels compelled to tell the people of Earth about his visits to Tralfamadore.
Is it any good?
A cult favorite for decades, this classic novel blends brutal realism with science fiction, and leavens it all with dark humor. Author Kurt Vonnegut artfully keeps the reader guessing about the plausibility of Billy Pilgrim's time-space travel, and keeps a bemused distance from the worst violence, of which there is plenty. Slaughterhouse-Five is an extremely entertaining read, and an important book for teen readers to explore more deeply in a classroom setting. It also has one of the all-time great opening lines in literature as it begins what is surely one of the strangest meditations on war: "All of this happened, more or less."
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Billy Pilgrim's time and space travel in Slaughterhouse-Five. Why does Billy become unstuck in time? Why does he feel compelled to tell everyone about his visits to the planet Tralfamadore?
How is Slaughterhouse-Five different from a typical war novel? How is it different from a typical science fiction novel?
Why do you think it's been hard for the narrator to write his book about the Dresden bombing?
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