Kurt Vonnegut & Sherman Alexie

UPDATE: Sherman Alexie is facing sexual assault allegations and has clearly used his position of power to take advantage of Native American women. This clearly effects the way that we read Sherman Alexie’s work. I’ve addressed my thoughts on that in a blog post and would encourage you to read it.

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five and Sherman Alexie’s 2007 novel Flight both feature violent scenarios, and time travel narratives. As Alexie explains in a 2007 NPR Interview, reading Slaughterhouse Five helped him form the shape of Flight. Similarly, scholars have broken down the function of time travel narratives in each of these novels. Because of the correlation that exists between the two novels, they can be read, and taught, in tandem.

Recommended Age Range: 14+, Grades 10+

 

About the Books

Slaughterhouse Five

“Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.”

Description courtesy of Amazon

Flight

“The best-selling author of multiple award-winning books returns with his first novel in ten years, a powerful, fast and timely story of a troubled foster teenager — a boy who is not a “legal” Indian because he was never claimed by his father — who learns the true meaning of terror. About to commit a devastating act, the young man finds himself shot back through time on a shocking sojourn through moments of violence in American history. He resurfaces in the form of an FBI agent during the civil rights era, inhabits the body of an Indian child during the battle at Little Big Horn, and then rides with an Indian tracker in the 19th Century before materializing as an airline pilot jetting through the skies today. When finally, blessedly, our young warrior comes to rest again in his own contemporary body, he is mightily transformed by all he’s seen. This is Sherman Alexie at his most brilliant — making us laugh while breaking our hearts. Simultaneously wrenching and deeply humorous, wholly contemporary yet steeped in American history, Flight is irrepressible, fearless, and again, groundbreaking Alexie.”

Description courtesy of Amazon

About the Authors

Kurt Vonnegut

World War II veteran, pacifist, satirist, humanist, environmentalist, visual artist, internationally acclaimed writer and Hoosier, Kurt Vonnegut is one of the most influential American writers and thinkers of the 20th century. Vonnegut’s work shakes traditional values, while offering offbeat and time-warping, alternative views of life. His bold commentaries on religion, war, the so-called establishment and mortality are woven into stories that challenge readers to examine their own values, inspiring philosophical discussions amongst family, friends, and Vonnegut fans everywhere.

Bio Courtesy of Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library 

Sherman Alexie

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction, a PEN/Hemingway Citation for Best First Fiction, and the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Sherman Alexie is a poet, short story writer, novelist, and performer. He has published 26 books including his recently released memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, his first picture book, Thunder Boy Jr, and young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, all from Little, Brown Books; What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned, a book of poetry, from Hanging Loose Press; and Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories, from Grove Press. He has also published the 20th Anniversary edition of his classic book of stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Smoke Signals, the movie he wrote and co-produced, won the Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, Alexie grew up in Wellpinit, Washington, on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Alexie has been an urban Indian since 1994 and lives in Seattle with his family.

Bio courtesy of Alexie’s website

Historical Contexts

Slaughterhouse Five

World War Two

The events that led to World War Two began in 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan aligned themselves in 1936, creating the Axis Powers. The three countries began to expand their reach, officially starting the war as Japan invaded China in 1937, Germany incorporated Austria in 1938, and Italy invaded Albania in 1939. In September of 1939, Great Britain and The Soviet Union entered the war. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, The U.S. officially entered World War Two in both the Pacific and Atlantic theaters; however, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had engaged a peacetime draft in September of 1940. Fighting continued over the next five years, including numerous landmarks such as storming the beaches of Normandy, the atomic bomb being dropped on Nagasaki, and Hitler’s suicide, and the liberation of Holocaust victims. Billy Pilgrim serves in World War Two in Slaughterhouse Five.

Source: “World War Two: Timeline.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museumwww.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007306.

The Bombing of Dresden

Between February 13 and February 15, 1945, the allied forces bombed the East German city of Dresden. The allied forces utilized a technique known as “area bombing,” where an entire area was bombed, not just troop areas or industries producing war-goods. They also used incendiary bombs, which causes massive fires. Over the course of two days, thousands of Allied bombers dropped thousands of bombs on Dresden, causing massive firestorms to rage across the city, essentially leveling it; Dresden wasn’t important to war-time production, a center of industry, and prior to this attack had not suffered a majored Allied attack. Following the firebombing of Dresden, it is estimated that 35,000 to 135,000 civilians had been killed. In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim is present during this event.

Source: History.com Staff. “Bombing of Dresden.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009, www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-dresden.

Flight

The American Indian Movement

The American Indian Movement or AIM, was a militarized racial identity and civil rights group, similar to the Black Panther party, sprang from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. One famous event associated with AIM is when approximately 200 Sioux and AIM members occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, located on the Pine Ridge reservation on February 27, 1973. AIM took the town’s residents hosted and demanded the US government make good on treaties of the 19th and 20th centuries. Police surrounded the town, beginning a 71-day siege. The siege led to the deaths of two Native activists, multiple others were wounded, and one FBI agent was paralyzed. The siege officially ended on May 8th when AIM surrendered and the occupation of Wounded Knee became the longest lasting “civil disorder” in 200 years of US history. This is likely the movement upon which Alexie based Zit’s interaction with IRON in Flight.

Sources:  History.com Staff. “AIM Occupation of Wounded Knee Begins.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/aim-occupation-of-wounded-knee-begins

Chertoff, Emily. “Occupy Wounded Knee: A 71-Day Siege and a Forgotten Civil Rights Movement.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 23 Oct. 2012, www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/occupy-wounded-knee-a-71-day-siege-and-a-forgotten-civil-rights-movement/263998/.

The Battle of Little Bighorn

The Battle of Little Bighorn was fought on June 25, 1876 between the US Army led by General George Armstrong Custer, and Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Sitting Bull and Cray Horse led the Native Americans against Custer and his forces, which had been sent to return the Native Americans back to their reservation. The Sioux had been removed from tribal lands to a reservation after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota, despite US treaties that were in place. General Custer and his soldiers were quickly overwhelmed by approximately 3000 Native Americans. Custer and all of his soldiers perished, which caused the battle to gain the nickname, “Custer’s Last Stand.” It was the most decisive Native American victory, and worst US Army defeat in the conflicts between the government and Native peoples. It was also the largest allied force of diverse Native people. In Flight, Zit’s occupies the body of a mute child during the battle.

Sources: History.com Staff. “Battle of the Little Bighorn.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009, www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/battle-of-the-little-bighorn.

The Sand Creek Massacre

On November 29, 1864, approximately 675 US soldiers attacked approximately 750 Cheyenne and Arapaho along the Sand Creek in what was at the time Colorado Territory. Many managed to escape; however, 8 hours after the initial attack, roughly 230 Native Americans, mostly women, children, and the elderly had been killed. The massacre was seemingly unprovoked, and is remembered as an “emotionally charged and controversial event.” Though Zit’s doesn’t travel to this event specifically, some relate this event to the scenario when he was an Indian tracker. This historical context is included here as an example of one of many Indian massacres in the United States.

Sources: “History & Culture.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 27 Aug. 2017, www.nps.gov/sand/learn/historyculture/index.htm.

9/11

On September 11th, 2001, 19 members of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial airplanes. Two were flown into the World Trade Center in New York City, causing them to collapse. One was flown into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The fourth plane was bound for the White House in Washington D.C., but was brought down in a field in Pennsylvania thanks to a counterattack from the passengers. On that day, 2,996 people were killed, making 9/11 the largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil. Alexie directly references 9/11 when Zit’s inhabits the body of a flight instructor.

Sources: “9/11 Interactive Timelines.” 9/11 Memorial Timeline, 9/11 Memorial, timeline.911memorial.org/#FrontPage.

Spokane/Coeur D’Alene Tribal Histories

The Spokane and Coeur D’Alene Indians have historically occupied areas of the American northwest. The tribes were traditionally fishermen and traders, unlike the nomadic tribes of the plains. Reservations were established for the Spokane and Coeur D’Alene in the 1870s and Early 1880s. Today, the Coeur D’Alene tribe has a membership of over 2000 members and resides on the Coeur D’Alene Reservation in Idaho. The Spokane reside on the Spokane Reservation in Washington, with a membership of nearly 3000 people. Alexie is Spokane/Coeur D’Alene, and though Zit’s heritage is never reveled, it can be inferred that he shares a similar heritage to Alexie based upon the novel’s setting in the American Northwest, and the fact that Alexie’s other works feature Spokane/Coeur D’Alene characters.

Sources: “Reservation.” Children of the Sun | Spokane Tribe, Spokane Tribe, 2017, spokanetribe.com.

“Overview.” Culture | Overview, Coeur d’ Alene Tribe, http://www.cdatribe-nsn.gov/cultural/Overview.aspx.

Reading Strategies

  • While youth are reading, have them create timelines for Zits and Billy Pilgrim, mapping when, and where they travel to over the course of their respective stories. Timelines can easily be used for discussions.
  • Discuss historic contexts as you come across them in the texts, rather than using them as introductory material or material to be discussed afterwards.
  • Encourage youth to take notes as they read, writing down characters, questions they might have, favorite lines, and other details that they might find important.
  • Read along with the youth using these texts, that way you’re experiencing the same material at the same time. This can help the conversation feel more genuine and it may help youth feel less like they are being talked down to when discussing literature.

Do you have reading strategies you like to use with teens? Send them my way!

Discussion Questions

  • When the main characters time travel, Billy Pilgrim remains himself while Zits inhabits different people. What effect does this have on the moments each character experiences? Which type of time travel do you enjoy reading more and why? How does time travel affect the development of these characters over the course of their respective novels?
  • Zits and Billy both have different levels of education, Billy is a college-educated optometrist and Zits is still a high school student. What is the effect of Billy’s education on the way he acts in situations? Think about what you’ve learned in classes, would you have known about any of the Native history events Zits traveled into? Zits seemed to know about a few of the events he traveled into. Based on his education level, connection to his Native heritage, and the way switching households can affect education, would Zits really have learned about these events? How did having a base-level knowledge of the civil rights event he transports into and The Battle of Little Bighorn help Zits in these situations? How could more/less education have changed these scenarios?
  • Billy Pilgrim and Zits are the main characters of their stories, besides time travel, how are these characters similar? How are they different?
  • Vonnegut and Alexie both draw on historical events. World War Two is very well known, and taught, The Battle of Little Bighorn ranks on a similar level; however, some of the events Alexie uses such as Native American civil rights movements are less widely known, similarly the Bombing of Dresden is not as widely discussed. What is the effect of using well-known historical events in these novels? How was your reading experience effected by not having a concrete knowledge of the historical events being discussed? What can these novels do for our own understanding of historical events?
  • Many of the events that occur in these novels are extremely violent, from wars to activist movements. Is the violence effective in these novels? Vonnegut and Alexie both use violence in unique ways. Compare and contrast the ways violence is used in these novels. How do these portrayals of violence effect your own understanding of the function of violence?
  • Vonnegut and Alexie both have a widespread use of cursing in their novels. Do you think cursing has a place in literature? Does cursing help or hinder your reading experience? What does the use of cursing tell you about the characters, Zits and Billy Pilgrim?
  • These two novels include a lot of history, but the time traveling sets them apart. What genre do you think Slaughterhouse Five and Flight belong in? Are they historical fiction texts? Are they science fiction? Can they be both?
  • Slaughterhouse Five and Sherman Alexie’s other young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, make frequent appearances on the American Library Association’s list of most banned and challenged books. Why do you think people ban books? Do a google search and find some of the reasons these novels may have been banned or challenged. Do you think these reasons are justified? What do you think the impact of reading books with controversial material may be?

Have you read both of these novels? Do you have ideas for other discussion questions? Feel free to send me suggestions and feedback here.

Activities

  • English teachers can work with history teachers for an in-depth research paper or project on one of the historical events in the text. This would work well with an American History course, but could extend to other courses as well. English teachers would focus on the written aspects, while history teachers engage the research side of the assignment.
  • Additional activities can be structured surrounding the foster care system and how it affects Native Americans. Students can perform research, or instructor prepared research can serve as a jumping off point to discuss systemic inequality and racism.
  • Encourage youth to engage with Sherman Alexie’s other work, most notably The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.There is also a movie, Smoke Signals (rated PG-13), based upon one of Alexie’s previous novels featuring an all Native cast that Alexie wrote and produced. These can serve as deeper insights into the Spokane/Coeur D’Alene people and Alexie’s writing.
  • Creative writing can be engaged by providing the following prompt for a free-write: Pick two historical events, either that you’ve read about in these two novels, or that you feel like you have knowledge about; now, write a scene where a character travels between these two events. Afterwards, have students discuss their choices with their partners and hold a larger group discussion.
  • Have youth discuss, and perhaps even free-write, what Billy Pilgrim would do in Zits’s situation, and how Zits would react if he was suddenly time traveling like Billy pilgrim. This could take the shape of critical conversation, or more creative conversation.
  • The works of Vonnegut and Alexie can be used for banned books week displays or activities. Have youth read selections from the text and share why it may have been banned or challenged. Create banned books “mugshots” featuring characters from banned books. Utilize American Library Association resources for engaging with banned books.

Do you have suggestions for activities for interacting with these two texts? Send them to me here.

Resources

Do you have resources you would like to share? Let me know about them!

 

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