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“Books at Drake Burned By School Board.”

October 1, 2008
Minot Daily News

By ANDREA JOHNSON, Staff Writer DRAKE Thirty-five years ago this November, the Drake Public School Board members decided to dispose of some reading material they found objectionable in their usual way: they used it as fuel for the school's coal burner. The board found they'd unwittingly ignited a firestorm when they threw those 32 copies of Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughter-House Five" into the fire. No one teaching at the school now was around for the 1973 book burning, and some of the principles have left the area. But the old fire still throws up some sparks every now and then. The headline on the front page of the Nov. 9, 1973, Minot Daily News read: "Books at Drake Burned By School Board." This story and the ones that followed in later days noted that a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School named Bruce Severy had decided to assign Vonnegut's 1969 novel to his sophomores as a change of pace. The kids seemed to get into the book. "C and D students were suddenly writing A papers," Severy told a reporter for The Minot Daily News. Then one of his students, 15-year-old Kim Duchsherer, complained to her mother about the bad language in the book. Kim's mom and the mother of another student in the class complained to the school board, which ordered the books confiscated when the sophomores were a third of the way through the book. The board ordered that the copies of "Slaughter-House Five" be torched and also ordered school Superintendent Dale Fuhrman to collect and burn about 60 copies of "Deliverance," by James Dickey and an anthology entitled "Short Story Masterpieces," with works by Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, among other famous writers. "We didn't approve of its obscene language," explained Charles McCarthy, who was board president at the time, in the Nov. 9, 1973, story. "It might pass in a college, but not in this school." Board member Melvin Alme told The Minot Daily News he had read the book after the board meeting and didn't "think it should be read by anyone." Two town clergymen attended the eventful school board meeting and blasted the book. The Rev. Thomas Benoy said "Slaughter-House Five" was "garbage," while the Rev. J.S. Axtmann, a Catholic priest, said he didn't like the book's "barnyard scenes," but added that it didn't seem like a good idea to him to burn the books either. "It sounds too much like years past to me," Axtmann told The News. Many of the students refused to turn in the books or told the board they'd lost their copies and would be happy to pay for them. The board ordered that their lockers be searched and told the school administration to call parents to have the books returned. Most of the sophomore class signed a letter of protest to the board: "We think it's respectable and interesting, and better than what we've been reading," said sophomore Pam Schnase. Severy, the teacher, told The News he was astounded that any school in the United States would burn books. ""I chose the book for its immediacy, its modern style, its brevity," he told The News. "It is a book which addresses itself to current problems in an honest and straightforward manner. "I believe the theme, or message of the book is a question: Why are we killing each other still? The book deals with other concerns as well. The lack of dignity and respect with which we treat each other in increasing doses. The dissatisfaction that Billy Pilgrim, the hero of the book, feels with his life of obvious material success. The emptiness of his marriage. The matter of man's own free will, that seems to be no longer functioning. The resulting apathy. "It is this apathy towards an increasing state of man's inhumanity to his fellow man that the author is crying out against in protest, through Billy Pilgrim. This is a moral book. It deals with a moral question that we as humans have been trying to deal with for time immemorial. The book begs the reader to come up with a workable answer. "Most of the criticism so far focuses on the language the author uses, specifically some four-letter words commonly referred to as slang, swearing, whatever. All I can say is that the author is trying to tell his story like it is, using the language as it is being used today, out there in the real world. "I would also like to say that no one who objects to the book that I have talked to has read the book. Another told me that he hadn't read any of the book. I say that no one can make judgment about an entire book without reading the entire book and taking it as such. Anything less is academically dishonest, anti-intellectual, and irrational. "I would also like to say that only one student in my two classes objected to the book after reading two chapters. This is fine. I have never forced a student to read any book if that student objected or if the parents objected. "I will abide by any school board decision regarding this matter and I will do so bearing no grudges. But I do feel that I had to make my own position clear in this matter." Severy told the paper that the school superintendent had advised him to resign or he'd be fired, which the school superintendent denied. In the weeks that followed, the Minot Education Association expressed its support for Severy; Vonnegut himself was interviewed by the paper and later wrote a letter to the Drake school board, and the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union threatened a lawsuit. According to a 2004 review of the book "100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature," by the College Review, there was an out of court settlement in the Drake case that resulted in permission being granted for "Slaughter-House Five" to be taught to high school juniors and seniors, while Severy received a settlement of $5,000. Vonnegut's letter to the Drake school board was reportedly reprinted in his autobiography "Palm Sunday." The book is on a list of most frequently challenged or censored books by schools put out by the American Library Association.

Article Photos

File photo

Karene Duchsherer, who didn’t want to stop for her picture to be taken, is seen entering the school bus that she drove in 1973. It was her daughter Kim who complained about the language in “Slaughterhouse-Five” that started a controversy over the book in the fall of 1973 at Drake High School.



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