Saturday, August 24, 2019

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

In perusing my Classics Club list a few days ago, I realized that despite reading over half of the novels on it, I hadn't yet cleared off any of the little categories I broke the list up into. I suddenly got a nonsensical urge to finish one of them off, so I looked to see which grouping was the closest to being completed. It turned out to be the "Modern Classics" category, which only had one book left to read on it, Slaughterhouse-Five. For that reason, and that reason alone, I picked up that book next.

The plot of the novel concerns a young soldier named Billy Pilgrim who becomes "unstuck in time" during his experiences in WWII. He moves backwards and forwards throughout his life in the text, like a time traveler. For example, he might go from being a soldier stranded behind German lines in one moment, to being a middle-aged optometrist in the next, and then back to his childhood in the moment after that. These time changes don't alarm Billy to any great extent, he just rolls with them, experiencing different bits of his life sporadically. Some of his time jumps reveal the curious information that he will be abducted by aliens in his future, and spend a great deal of time as an exhibit in a human zoo. He also learns how his life will end one day, which also doesn't worry him much. When he speaks with his family about this, they become deeply concerned for his mental well being, but again, Billy doesn't make a fuss and just goes along as if things are normal, flashing back and forth within his own life.

As the story continues on, it becomes clear that Billy was deeply affected by what he saw during the war, particularly his experience during the bombing of Dresden, a horrific event resulting in a great loss of human life. The reader is left to sort out what's actually happening to him on their own, as the time skips, absurd situations, and alien abductions start to feel more like symptoms of PTSD than reality. While no specific explanations are ever given for what's actually going on, the novel's overall message about the tragedy and waste of war is clear. It's left to the audience to decide how they want to interpret Billy's situation.

As I have discussed before on this blog, modern classics tend to make me nervous. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the elements that I struggle with: unusual story structure, non-chronological use of time, and a blurring of fantasy and reality. Despite all this, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this story. Vonnegut's writing was a perfect blend of funny and serious, and I found myself completely engaged in Billy's strange adventures through time. I was interested in trying to sort out exactly what was going on, and I wasn't frustrated by the process of puzzling it out. The unusual parts of the novel were balanced with enough that was understandable to make the reading process more intriguing than confusing.

The antiwar theme of the novel was very well handled, with a lot more showing than telling throughout the text. Rather than state his position outright, Vonnegut describes Billy's war experiences in a simple, straightforward way and lets the reader digest the information. As the situations Billy encounters are horrifying, this technique of using simple. matter of fact prose, makes his experiences feel even more disturbing. After reading Uncle Tom's Cabin last week, a book that directly preaches its themes to the reader, I found it refreshing to read a novel that leaves more of the interpretation to the reader.

So even though I didn't pick up this book with any great expectations or excitement for it in my mind, I was very satisfied with my reading. This is one of the few more modern classics that I actually enjoyed, and I know that it will stick with me for a while. I have another Vonnegut work buried on my Classics Club list in the science fiction section, (Cat's Cradle) and I am excited to give that one a shot in the future.

Also, I am happy to be able to say that I have now officially finished the "Modern Classics" section of my Classics Club Challenge, an achievement that means nothing to anyone except myself. It is awfully satisfying to be able to say that a section of my list is done though. I might just finish it on time yet.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#9 on my list): 52/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 58

Friday, August 23, 2019

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom by Lynda Blackmon Lowery

I was loaned Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom by a teacher at my school this summer. He is planning on reading this with his class in the upcoming school year, and invited me to do the same, provided I like the novel, of course. With school starting up again this week (yikes!) I figured that now was the time to give this a try and see if I wanted to use it in my classroom as well.

Turning 15 is the true story of Lynda Blackmon Lowery's political activism and participation in the Selma Voting Rights March in 1965. She begins her story by describing her early experiences with protesting by participating in various children's marches with her sisters and classmates in the early 60s. She feels very strongly about standing up and demanding her right to vote, and she endures multiple hardships, including being the target of hateful language, physical violence, and several arrests throughout her adolescence. She never gives up the fight though, even when she is hit with tear gas and badly beaten during the infamous demonstration that came to be known as Bloody Sunday.

Lowery's activism culminates in her participation in the Selma Voting Rights March. She was the youngest person to participate in the whole demonstration, walking all the way from Selma to Montgomery with her fellow activists at just 15 years old. She describes hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement speak, and feels pride in her accomplishment of making it all the way to the capitol building to show Governor Wallace her determination to fight.

At the end of the novel, Lowery reflects on how the courage and persistence of her community helped to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. She encourages the young people of today to fight for what they believe in, and reminds them that issues of racism and discrimination still exist in our world today, alongside an encouraging reminder that they do not have to wait until they are adults to start caring about these issues and making a difference. A section of interviews, reader discussion questions, and additional historical information about the Civil Rights Movement is included after Lowery's narrative to provide additional context for young readers and round out the text.

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom is a very quick read, but its content is important and clearly communicated. Lowery's themes of equality and social justice are integrated smoothly throughout the text, and young readers will surely be moved and educated by her story. As an adult reader, I was still surprised to learn about the extent of children's participation in the civil rights movement and had no trouble being drawn into Lowery's experiences.

This novel is written around a 5th grade level, and as such, the writing is quite literal and unadorned. Scary language and events are softened to a level appropriate for children, and the intricacies of the social and political realities of the time period are simplified. At the same time, Lowery consistently tells the truth about what was happening in the world and doesn't shy away from explaining the difficult experiences she went through. Multiple photographs and artwork are also peppered throughout the text, creating a very attractive and eye-catching final product. Children interested in biographies or history will find a lot to like here, and won't get bogged down in an overly-long novel. I was able to finish this book in its entirety before I finished my morning coffee. Kids will be able to finish in a few days, or even less, depending on how long their reading sessions are.

Turning 15 is most definitely a book that teachers could use in their classrooms, depending on the reading level of their students. It lacks the detail and emotion that would make this a crossover hit with adults, but young readers and older, struggling readers, will most likely enjoy it. Beyond any discussion of writing style or difficulty level, however, is the importance of what this novel does. It talks about a difficult time in American history and shares a story about how people from our past worked together to overcome injustice and prejudice. These are discussions we need to have with students today, and Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom will certainly help facilitate that.  

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 37/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 57

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Back when I was in college Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of the novels assigned in my American literature class. For some reason that I can't really remember, I never ended up actually reading it. I used online summaries to get through my assignments, which ended up working out fine. As a stereotypical goody two shoes, this was highly unusual behavior for me. I chalk it up now to the stress of college, but I am still a little disappointed in myself for not actually reading it when I was supposed to. I always knew I wanted to come back to it one day, so when I was planning out my Back to the Classics Challenge for this year, I decided to use it for the "classic by a female author prompt."

I was further inspired to pick this novel up again just a few weeks ago, when I took a trip to the Harriet Beecher Stowe house in Hartford, Connecticut. The tour through her home was absolutely lovely, and I purchased a fresh copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the gift shop on the way out. Standing in the rooms that she stood in and learning about her journey to write this novel was a very moving and powerful experience. I knew then that I had to read this book sooner rather than later. Accordingly, once I finished up The Book Junkie Trial books I was working on, I got started.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is the abolitionist novel that Abraham Lincoln famously declared to be the book that started the Civil War. It has a complicated legacy and a bit of a controversial history, but at its heart, it is a straightforward story about the evils of slavery. The plot centers around two different slaves in the 1850s, the eponymous Uncle Tom and a young woman named Eliza Harris. At the start of the novel, both Eliza and Tom are the property of the Shelby family in rural Kentucky. They feel that they are treated very well by their master and are happy with their lives on the cotton plantation. Tom  has a sterling reputation in the community, built on his trustworthiness and reliability. He is entrusted with caring for the horses, driving Mr. Shelby around, and carrying out other important errands for the family. He is married to another slave named Aunt Chloe, and he lives with her and their three children in a small cabin on the property. Eliza has a similarly good reputation with the family, and works as Mrs. Shelby's personal maid. She is married to a slave named George, who works on a neighboring plantation. They have a young son together, named Harry.

When Mr. Shelby makes some unwise investments, he finds himself in a difficult financial position. He decides to sell off some of his more valuable slaves to a slavebroker to settle his debts and avoid losing his farm. The slaves he sells are Tom and young Harry. When Eliza and Tom discover this terrible news, their reactions are quite different. Eliza immediately takes Harry and runs away to the north, while Tom accepts his fate and is sold further south. Throughout the rest of the novel, the story shifts between both characters as they struggle to adjust to their new lives and try to reconnect with their families.

From page one of this novel, it is very clear that Stowe was on a mission to end slavery with this story. Her narration overtly states the evils of the institution hundreds of times throughout the text, and she frequently breaks into the story to address the reader directly and question their beliefs and assumptions about the practice. She is not subtle with her messaging, and often does this using all capital letters, to emphasize the moral  horror she is trying to convey. I learned during my tour of the Stowe house that much of Stowe's distaste for slavery centered around the separation of families, and her own experience of losing one of her children to an illness solidified her feelings in this regard. Accordingly, much of her rhetorical strategy in the text caters to female readers, appealing to their maternal instincts to highlight the cruelty of taking children from their mothers and husbands from their wives. Both Eliza and Tom's distress at being taken from their families occupy large portions of the story, with Stowe frequently asking readers how they would feel if their babies were ripped from their arms and sold to a faraway stranger. It's a smart and effective strategy. Stowe knew that much of her audience would be female and tailored her story to allow them to empathize with her characters.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was a bestseller when it was published in 1852, and massively influential in the fight to end slavery. People fell in love with Tom and Eliza, and were quite upset at the troubles they suffered. It helped to convince people that slavery was cruel. In more modern times, however, the book has faced a lot of criticism. The phrase "Uncle Tom" is now used as a slur to describe someone of color showing excessively subservient behavior to a white person. While this idea of Tom being overly subservient is more a product of stage and movie adaptations than the actual text, the negativity still affects the public's perception of the book. There are other troubling attitudes shown throughout the story as well, including the belief that black people are more innocent and childlike than whites, and the assertion that black people feel emotions more strongly than whites, as if on a primal level. There are also some characters that don't come across well, especially the impish Topsy, who's behavior and mannerisms are completely informed by harmful stereotypes.

It is clear from reading that Stowe herself believed that whites were superior to blacks on an intellectual level. However, it is also clear that she abhorred slavery, sympathized with the struggles that slaves had to endure, believed that slaves loved their children just the same as white people did, and sincerely thought that the institution should be abolished. Much of her novel hasn't aged well, but her intentions were pure and her efforts to persuade others to support the abolitionist cause met with tremendous success in her time period. Ultimately, I choose to admire the fact that she saw an injustice happening in her world and didn't just stand idly by, lamenting the situation; she tried to help change it. I don't think there's much point in critically analyzing her treatment of race here. She was writing in 1852. It's not realistic to expect her to have modern views.

So while I deeply admire Stowe's effort throughout Uncle Tom's Cabin, evaluating my actual enjoyment of it is another matter. This novel is undoubtedly an interesting work of historical significance to America, and it's worth reading for that reason alone. As literature, however, it isn't exactly a page-turner. This is a long novel, and a repetitive one at that. The plot is a bit meandering, especially in the Uncle Tom sections, which are much longer than the Eliza sections. The constant breaking in of the narrator to denounce slavery directly to the reader grows tiring after a while as well. It doesn't feel like a real story that sweeps you away. Rather, it feels like a lecture. It's a fairly entertaining lecture, but a lecture nonetheless. It tough to criticize the book for that though, as convincing people slavery was wrong was the entire point of it. I should have been able to finish reading it in a week or so, but I ended up taking double that, simply because I wasn't excited to pick it up. I didn't exactly dislike it, but I didn't love it either. What saved the experience for me was the historical value the novel has. It felt like I was reading something important, and that made me appreciate it more.

Ultimately, I am glad that I finally read Uncle Tom's Cabin. While it is a novel with its share of problems, its impact on history is undeniable and Stowe's heart was in the right place while writing it. It was an interesting look at a dark time in America's past, and an essential read for anyone interested in classic literature. It may not have become a favorite for me, but it was certainly illuminating.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#72 on my list): 51/100 
Back to the Classics 2019 (Classic by a Female Author) 10/12 Books Read 

Total Books Read in 2019: 56