Tuesday, September 6, 2016

My first Vonnegut...uhm...

or The Children's Crusade 
I'm going to assume this was perhaps not the best Vonnegut 
to make my first reading experience with this writer.
I will try reading Breakfast of Champions next since 
one of my friends stated it is her favorite Vonnegut.
This will probably be one of the shortest blog posts I've ever done!
There just isn't much I want to say...
except...this did not resonate with me much. 
I think it was mainly Vonnegut's writing style; at least in this book,
it is as if there are bits and pieces rather disconnected, though some are interwoven,
I was rather confused and much of the time felt similarly as when I read
The Stranger by Albert Camus.
Though with Camus' book I felt there was a story, strange and nonsensical as it seemed, 
whereas with this book I felt as if I was reading stream-of-consciousness as the
author had memories or thoughts. 
As I read where I had marked, I realized it was a bit more coherent and cohesive than
I remember it being, but still not a reading experience I wish to repeat! 
So, I read this classic. And I have now read a Kurt Vonnegut.
That is the best I can say of this one...

Although I had many markers in this book when I finished reading it, I was aware they were more to try to help me understand this work than items I wanted to quote or make note of in a review. And...did it work to help me better understand? I certainly hope so... 

In the preface Vonnegut admits he has "no regrets about this book," though it has been said it "trivialized the Holocaust." He describes it:
It is a nonjudgmental expression of what I saw and did in Dresden after it was firebombed 
so long ago, when, in the company of other prisoners of war and slave laborers 
who had survived the raid, I dug corpses from cellars and carried them, unidentified, 
their names recorded nowhere, to monumental funeral pyres. 
The corpses could have been anybody, including me, and there were surely 
representatives among them, whether collaborators, or slaves, or refugees, 
of every nation involved in the European half of World War II. 
How could I be nonjudgmental? It was bombs that had done the killing.
I had several decent and honorable and courageous friends who were pilots and bombardiers.
Actions of men like them on the Dresden raid required no more fury and loathing or angry vigor 
than would have jobs on an automobile assembly line. (xii)
So I guess they were just 'doing their job'? Well, yes, perhaps...but... When considering war and how humans can be so inhumane to others of their own species, I am always reminded of All the Light We Cannot See (by Anthony Doerr) and how in both the book club discussions in which I participated so many readers stated this was the first time they felt they could understand how a person could participate in war and kill others; how we could become convinced to do so, particularly for a madman like Hitler. So, yes, in a way, it is just 'doing a job,' and yet... 

Vonnegut continues:
The drama at Auschwitz was about man's inhumanity to man.
The drama of any air raid on a civilian population, 
a gesture in diplomacy to a man like Henry Kissinger, 
is about the inhumanity of many of man's inventions to man. (xiii)
But...there is no difference, in my humble opinion--inhumanity and indiscriminate murder is just that, whether inflicted by one person upon another with a knife, gun, or hand-to-hand combat, or by flying a plane that drops bombs onto people. Though admittedly, to drop bombs does remove a layer of culpability by eliminating personal contact with the victims of your weaponry, but it doesn't remove your responsibility for killing others. Or is Vonnegut just simply being satirical? Definitely up to a reader's interpretation...

In discussing the writing of this book with his friend, O'Hare, he states
"I think the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby...
The irony is so great. 
A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed. 
And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot.
And he's given a regular trial, and then he's shot by a firing squad."
Definitely irony in that. Sick irony, but...irony. It is said that 130,000 people died in the Dresden bombing. Did you get that? One. Hundred. Thirty. Thousand. People. Dead. All in one city. 

Many years later, he wrote the Air Force,
asking for details about the raid on Dresden, who ordered it, how many planes did it, 
why they did it, what desirable results there had been and so on. 
I was answered by a man who, like myself, was in public relations.
He said that he was sorry, but that the information was top secret still.
I read the letter out loud to my wife, and said, "Secret? My God--from whom?" (10-11)
In such instances, I wonder exactly who is in control of such decisions and what their ulterior motives might truly be. Who knows? Will we ever know? Only many decades later, as has been the way of it. Interestingly, this book was published in 1969. A very tumultuous time in U.S. politics and society, where upheaval and protest were the norm. 

Vonnegut couldn't help but notice that Mary, O'Hare's wife, had a particularly cold attitude toward him. She did finally express what was bothering her: It was the fact that he was writing a book about war, and in her opinion "wars were partly encouraged by books and movies," in that it idealized war and glossed over the fact that they were "fought by babies like the babies upstairs." From this he felt her anger was not directed toward him, but toward the concept of war:
She didn't want her babies or anybody else's babies killed in wars. (14)
Yes, who does? And yet when the world is faced with a madman like Hitler, who has been allowed to grow so strong, what else is to be done? Though what of the bombing raid on Dresden? Why? Exactly what "good" was to result? It is a conundrum to be sure... I personally feel violence only begets more violence, but there have been times when it was necessary, haven't there? 

Vonnegut gives us a brief account of the actual "Children's Crusade" begun in 1213 by two monks who had the 'brilliant' idea of 
raising armies of children in Germany and France, and selling them in North Africa as slaves.
Thirty thousand children volunteered, thinking they were going to Palestine...
about half of them drowned in shipwrecks...
the other half got to North Africa where they were sold. (15-16)
What?!? I had never heard of such a thing. Honestly, what we humans have done and can and evidently will do to each other. Horrific... "So it goes." Vonnegut repeated this one phrase throughout this book more times than I could (or wanted) to count. 

The Billy Pilgrim portions of this book sometimes reminded me just a bit of Douglas Adams' The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But only a bit and only for a moment every now and then. Did I mention Vonnegut's writing style in this one did not resonate well with me? Yeah...it didn't...

One character, Weary, is obviously a psycho, and he ends up with Billy Pilgrim, in the middle of World War II. Bizarre. Nonsensical. Random. Two scouts ditch them in a creekbed and soon after are shot by Germans. Absurd? Ironic? 

Billy Pilgrim is abducted by Tralfamadorians:
"Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim," said the loudspeaker. "Any questions?"
Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: "Why me?"
"That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter?
Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?"
"Yes," Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office 
which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.
"Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why." (73-74)
It does seem that way at times, doesn't it? 
"If I hadn't spent so much time studying Earthlings," said the Tralfamadorian, 
"I wouldn't have any idea what was meant by 'free will.' 
I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, 
and I have studied reports on one hundred more.
Only on Earth is there any talk of free will." (81) 
Hah! What fools? Or at the very least idealists? 

Rosewater was reading a book entitled Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension by Kilgore Trout, 
about people whose mental diseases were all in the fourth dimension, 
and three-dimensional Earthling doctors couldn't see those causes at all, or even imagine them.
One thing Trout said that Rosewater liked very much was that there really were vampires and werewolves and goblins and angels and so on, but that they were in the fourth dimension.
So was William Blake, Rosewater's favorite poet, according to Trout.
So were heaven and hell. (99)
Ha! I had to chuckle at that last line. Yep! Vonnegut was an atheist and humanist. :)

Rosewater congratulates Billy Pilgrim's fiancee on her engagement ring,
"Thank you," she said, and held it out so Rosewater could get a close look.
"Billy got that diamond in the war."
"That's the attractive thing about war," said Rosewater.
"Absolutely everybody gets a little something." (105)
Ugh. How facetious is that statement? 

According to the Trafalmadorians, Earthlings might learn to "Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones" if they just tried hard enough. I agree that we need to concentrate much more effort on remembering and celebrating the positives in life. 

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are untrue...
Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money.
They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and therefore,
those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves.
This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, 
who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, 
than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.
Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these,
a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. 
They do not love another because they do not love themselves. (123)
Amazing how 47 years later these words are still prophetic. Sad...

I admit this did make me chuckle:
Trout, incidentally, had written a book about a money tree. It had twenty-dollar bills for leaves.
Its flowers were government bonds. Its fruit was diamonds. It attracted human beings 
who killed each other around the roots and made very good fertilizer.
So it goes. (159)
Ugh. All too true... Quite easy to imagine, isn't it? It happens every day...

I'll end with this tidbit...
Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round,
was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes.
Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes.
And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam.
So it goes.
My father died many years ago now--of natural causes. So it goes. He was a sweet man.
He was a gun nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust. (200)

Okay, maybe not so short a review after all! :)
While there are some gems in here, I can't say I really enjoyed reading this book.
I get the symbolism, the seeming inevitability of war, the hopelessness of humanity,
the inhumanity of humanity...

To say this was not an optimistic or positive read is a definite understatement. 
Though it contains many truisms.

Have you read this book?
Any other Vonnegut novels you might recommend that might be a bit 'lighter' fare?

Happy reading


  1. I enjoyed Cat's Cradle and Slaughter-house Five in College, but I also had a professor leading the American Novel class that was a giant Vonnegut fan so he taught us all to appreciate him. I don't know if I would have found that on my own!

    1. I'm so glad you had a positive experience with this book and Vonnegut! Ah, yes, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable instructor can certainly make a difference, in a positive way! I'll have to add Cat's Cradle to my list! I am anxious to try another just to see if it is his writing style that throws me or just this one book. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Sounds like you looked Kilgore Trout, which means you should DEFINITELY read Breakfast of Champions; it's about him.

    1. Thanks so much for that insight! Even more reason to read that one next! Thanks for stopping by, Melanie!