Summary of the Novel
Chapter One is a preface-like chapter in the novel. Vonnegut describes the difficulty of writing Slaughterhouse-Five. Although he felt his war experiences needed to be written, he feels the finished product is a failure.
Billy Pilgrim travels in time. Most of his travels revolve around his experiences as a prisoner of war in World War II. Because he is a time traveller, he always knows what the outcome of each experience will be.
Billy, who was recently in a plane crash, is eager to tell the world about the wisdom of the planet Tralfamadore, whose residents kidnapped him. While his daughter berates him, he travels to his war experiences. After a major battle, Billy is hiding behind enemy lines with three other soldiers. One of them is Roland Weary, who is about to beat Billy, when they are captured by the Germans.
On his march to the railyards, Billy time travels to his optometry office in Ilium. He listens to a speech at the Lion’s club in favor of blanket bombing in Vietnam, then goes home for a nap. He returns to World War II. At the railyards, the prisoners are loaded onto boxcars for transportation to the prison camps.
Next Billy time travels to the moment when the Tralfamadorian spaceship kidnapped him, then returns to the boxcar. Roland Weary is dead when the prisoners arrive at the German prison camp. After a few days there, during which time Billy time travels to the mental ward where he stayed after the war, his death, the Tralfamadorian zoo, and his wedding night, the Americans are sent to Dresden.
The Americans are housed in an abandoned slaughteryard in Dresden. Billy relives the plane crash and his rescue. Back in Dresden, he and his friend, Edgar Derby, work at a malt syrup factory.
During an air raid, Billy travels to his seventeenth wedding anniversary party, where a barbershop quartet dredges up a suppressed memory of the bombing of Dresden. He then goes to the zoo on Tralfamadore, where he tells his beautiful mate, Montana, about his memory. After the flames of Dresden have died down, the prisoners and their guards leave the gutted city in search of food and shelter, finally staying at an inn outside of the city.
Billy’s wife, Valencia, dies on her way to see him in the hospital after the plane accident. Because of his silence after the crash, he is considered a vegetable. He finally speaks to Bertram Rumfoord, telling him that he was in Dresden when it was bombed and that the Tralfamadorians had taught him that the destruction of Dresden had to be. After being discharged, Billy sneaks off to New York and gets on a radio show, where he talks about the Tralfamadorians. Vonnegut says that he hopes Billy’s philosophy is wrong.
Billy is put to work digging the corpses out of the rubble. Edgar Derby is shot for looting a teapot. One day, the war is finally over. Billy walks free into the springtime world.
The Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born on November 11, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana. His father was a prominent architect and his mother the daughter of a wealthy brewer. They were liberal, atheistic, and well-to-do third-generation Germans who were prominent in the social scene of their city.
Although Vonnegut’s older brother and sister were both educated in private schools, the Depression caused such a dramatic drop in the family income that the Vonneguts could no longer afford such luxuries as continuing to pay for Vonnegut’s education. The change was traumatic for Vonnegut’s parents and eventually led to his mother Edith’s suicide in 1944. Vonnegut adjusted well to public school, where he started writing as a reporter for the newspaper at Shortridge High School.
Vonnegut enrolled in Cornell in 1941. At his father’s recommendation that he study something practical, Vonnegut majored in chemistry. He continued to write, eventually becoming editor of the student paper at Cornell University.
In 1942, Vonnegut enlisted in the army. He was captured by Germans on December 22, 1944, after the Battle of the Bulge. From the front he was eventually sent to the open city of Dresden. While he was there, the Allies firebombed the city, killing 135,000 people. (By comparison, about half that number died in the bombing of Hiroshima.) Vonnegut survived only because his prison was a meat locker 60 feet underground.
After the war, Vonnegut married Jane Marie Cox, with whom he would have three children. He briefly attended the University of Chicago, then moved to Schenectady, New York, where he worked as a publicist for General Electric. During this time Vonnegut began to sell stories to such publications as Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post. Encouraged by his successes, he left his position at G.E. to pursue writing full-time in 1950.
Vonnegut’s first full-length novel was Player Piano, published in 1951. His next novel, Sirens of Titan, was not published until 1959. Although this may have been the least successful part of his career, he did manage to support his family, including three nephews adopted when his sister died, from the earnings brought in by the short stories he wrote during this period.
Vonnegut’s next book was Mother Night (1961), which was followed rapidly by Cat’s Cradle (1963) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965). Vonnegut turned to teaching in 1965, eventually coming to the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. While there, he was offered a three-book contract, which was followed in short order by a Guggenheim fellowship. These fortuitous events led to the writing of Slaughterhouse-Five, which was published in 1969.
Slaughterhouse-Five was a success both critically and financially. Since its publication, Vonnegut has pursued writing full-time, producing eight more novels and many other works. His most recently published work is 1995’s Timequake.
World War II started in September, 1939, when Germany invaded a heavily resisting Poland. France and Great Britain, which had signed an alliance with Poland, had been attempting to restrain Nazi aggression through diplomatic measures, but the invasion forced them to declare war. Meanwhile, the United States, which was in an isolationist mood carried over from World War I, declared itself neutral.
Because of its discipline, organization, and firepower, Germany was very successful and quickly overran the Poles. The Allies were able to do little against the German juggernaut, in great deal because of the outdated nature of their armies. While they had chosen to rest on their victor’s laurels, the Germans had aggressively modernized their army, devoting special resources to their air force. This led to the development of the dive bomber, which flew at low altitude to hit enemy targets, and aircrafts capable of flying for longer distances, permitting the bombing of targets far behind enemy lines.
These resources came to bear in the Battle of Great Britain (1940-1941), which was conducted almost entirely in the air. German forces bombed military targets, but Great Britain’s extensive radar network limited their effectiveness, and there were few casualties. Not until Britain sent a force to bomb Berlin did Hitler aim the German aircraft at civilian targets in Britain. Fortunately, the Germans refused to launch a land-based invasion and turned their attention instead toward the U.S.S.R..
While the United States covertly aided the British throughout this period, it was not until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 that the United States officially entered the war. At this time, Great Britain was only hanging on, and France had long fallen. Britain, the United States, and the U.S.S.R. spent much time strategizing, deciding to pursue war on other fronts before tackling the Germans on the continent.
In early 1944, the Allies pursued a campaign of air warfare against the Germans that was designed not only to take out military and industrial targets but to sap the will of the people by attacking civilian sites. Incendiary bombing played a significant role in these raids, leading to a great loss of life. Then, in June of 1944, after the fall of Mussolini, the Allies invaded German-occupied France through Normandy. The quick Allied victories as the Nazis were routed from France came as a surprise, and the Allies did not pursue their advantage as well as they might have. However, as the German forces were pushed behind their own borders, they began to resist more strongly. By November, the two sides had come to a stalemate.
In this interim, the German forces regrouped. Hitler called for Total Mobilization, forcing every able bodied male between 16 and 60 into the army. These reserve forces allowed the Germans to surprise the Allied forces in the Battle of the Bulge, which took place in weakly defended Ardenne hills on December 14, 1944. Kurt Vonnegut was involved in this battle, which resulted in the death of 120,000 Germans and 75,000 Americans. It was the last great German offensive action.
In preparation for the invasion of Germany, the Allies intensified their aerial bombardment of Germany in early 1945. The culmination of these attacks was the levelling of refugee-swollen Dresden on February 13-14, 1945, an attack which was led by the British forces. While the Allies claimed Dresden was an important communication and transportation hub, there is now little doubt that its destruction served no military purpose, especially since the Dresden railyard was damaged so little that it was functioning again within three days. At a loss estimated at 135,000 civilian lives, most of whom died as a result of a firestorm that reached 1000 degrees Fahrenheit rather than the bombing itself, the casualties exceeded those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is the overlooked tragedy that Vonnegut records in Slaughterhouse-Five.
Germany collapsed in the spring of 1945, as the Allies pushed in from the west and the Soviets from the east. After Hitler committed suicide, his successor surrendered on May 8, 1945, ending the war in Europe. In a few more months, Japan too surrendered, but the face of the world and of warfare would never be the same.
Kurt Vonnegut’s wartime experiences provide the grist for the formative, and most relevant, life experiences of Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut’s participation in the war took place at a historical cusp. The Battle of the Bulge, in which he fought, was the only time the Germans had the kind of radical successes against American forces that would allow them to take prisoners. Hitler’s last gasp, the Total Mobilization, is reflected in Billy/Vonnegut’s description of the German soldiers who capture them, a motley group containing a poorly shod and dressed teenager as well as two extremely old men.
The hostility of the Germans toward the Russians, who by the time of Billy/Vonnegut’s capture had killed over a million German soldiers, is epitomized by Billy’s eerie encounter with a starving, yet still very much human, Russian prisoner of war. Within the text, this episode contrasts strongly with the depiction of the British prisoners, who seem to benefit from the same positive attitude that kept Hitler seeking a British surrender instead of British annihilation. They are fit and healthy, while the Russians are dying from hunger and the cold. It would have been difficult for Vonnegut not to notice the difference even if he did not know the reason for it.
The developments in warfare also strongly affected Vonnegut’s experience. The use of firebombing was only made possible by the invention of longer-range aircraft. The strategy of attacking civilian targets (ostensibly for “demoralization”) was also quite novel. (As noted, the German forces themselves aimed only for military targets until the British initiated the practice against Berlin. German civilians suffered far more heavily as a result of this “tactic” than the British, who were protected by their coastal radar network.)
The Germans also had not prepared for firestorms resulting from incendiary bombing, as the effect had only been discovered a short time before in Hamburg. Without numerous deeply dug bomb shelters, there was no way for such a large population to escape the killing effects of high heat and oxygen depletion. The development of long-range bombers, the decision to firebomb civilians, and the lack of an effective warning system or shelter were all responsible for the destruction of Dresden and the slaughter of its unsuspecting populace. Oddly, Vonnegut’s meat locker prisoner, which would doubtlessly been repulsive to the Dresden populace, preserved him from the firestorm’s effects.
It is worthwhile to note that the personalized narrative Vonnegut is able to provide this event is itself original, or at least it was at the time the book was published. After the end of World War II, the Dresden catastrophe was swept under the rug. Military histories avoided its mention and official information on the incident was classified long beyond any reasonable time. The only possible explanation for this “oversight” is the one cited at the end of Slaughterhouse-Five by a military hawk: the “true story” upsets anyone with a conscience. Even the British attempted to retreat from their “accomplishment,” realizing that the bombing of a defenseless population of civilians inhabiting one of the most beautiful cities in Europe had almost no support among their own people.
For a long time the pretense was held that the city was of some military importance; but as Slaughterhouse-Five reminds the reader over and over, this simply was not true. And as David Irving documents in his seminal The Destruction of Dresden, the railyards were completely missed, while the historical center of the city was turned into a kiln that baked human beings into little bricks. The reason for the bombing seems to descend into a combination of gross callousness and the desire to get revenge on the Germans. Noteworthily, the raid on Dresden took place long before the concentration camps came to light.
Irving’s book was also inspirational to Vonnegut, as it was the first fully researched documentation of the attack on Dresden, its causes and its aftermath. It makes clear the innocent situation of the Dresdeners, who, although short on food, felt safe thanks to Dresden’s status as an “open city.” This same belief led the city’s leaders to not consider heavy-duty bomb shelters a priority. Finally, the myth of Dresden’s safety made is a magnet for refugees fleeing the Russian advance. Unfortunately, these mistakes resulted in even more deaths when the city was finally attacked.
Yet the Destruction of Dresden maintains a detached air, even in its descriptions of basements filled to wading depth with human gore and water tanks loaded with boiled corpses. Hiroshima was truly a tragedy, but few people know that more people died in the Dresden firestorm (and in fire-bombed Tokyo) than in the wake of the Enola-Gay. Slaughterhouse-Five is often the first time an American will ever have heard of these events. It was up to Vonnegut to bring this tragedy to the notice of the world in a way no one could forget, and in a way that could only ring so true with his own experiences behind it.
Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-Five during the Vietnam war years. Protests against the war were numerous, but the feeling of inevitable victory ran high in many quarters. Simultaneous with the national debate over the war, the 1960s were marked by advances and setbacks in American race relations. The civil rights movement had had many successes, but there had also been rioting in some cities.
Before Vonnegut finished Slaughterhouse-Five, both Robert Kennedy, hero of the anti-war movement, and Martin Luther King would be dead. Their deaths started a loss of optimism in American life that would receive its coup de grace in the Seventies from Watergate and the miltary fiasco in Vietnam.
The 1960s were a pivotal era in the advancement of the fictional form. Black humor met with great success during this time. Most notable among its practitioners was Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22. Black humor acknowledged the absurdity of the world’s workings, making this absurdity a matter for laughter. Man’s inability to affect his fate was accepted as the status quo.
Vonnegut was categorized as a black humorist for some time, along with such outstanding authors as Terry Southern and John Barth. It was not a dishonorable characterization, but rather limiting to the critical analysis of his work. Much worse was his earlier label of science fiction author, a result of the futuristic setting of his first two novels, the dystopian Player Piano and the space opera parody Sirens of Titan. Such a description ignored his short story work and pigeonholed Vonnegut as a participant in a genre generally considered to have no literary value. This one-dimensional tag was likely the cause of Vonnegut’s failure to be included on Esquire’s mid-fifties list of “every living American writer of even the slightest merit,” an oversight which bothered him for years.
Despite the brilliance of his work of the early sixties (especially Cat’s Cradle), the turgid prose of Player Piano and the fantastic setting of Sirens of Titans dogged Vonnegut’s reputation into these years. However, among the reading public, his books were selling well enough during this time to merit their reprinting in 1966. He had became increasingly popular among college students, thanks in part to the word of mouth that had led to Sirens of Titan selling for fifty dollars a copy during the years it was out of print.
The first scholarly article to be published on Vonnegut finally appeared in 1966. But Vonnegut’s battle to be taken seriously was far from over. Now, however, his popularity, which skyrocketed with the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, and his vernacular style were used as weapons against him. One critic, Stanley Schatt, criticized his novels as “simplistic philosophy of kindness packaged in sophomoric tales that catered to the whims of unsophisticated readers.” While his popularity enabled Vonnegut to devote himself once again to writing full time, critics still found it difficult to believe that a writer could appeal to the masses and still be good.
Despite the doubts of some contemporary critics, Slaughterhouse-Five was the work that sealed Vonnegut’s reputation as one of the best authors of the modern age. Nineteen seventy-one became the banner year for academic criticism of Vonnegut, and 1972 saw the first book devoted entirely to Vonnegut’s writings.
The analyses of Vonnegut’s works have improved as he has aged. Recent titles have tackled such topics as the psychological states of his characters and the paradigm of Eden within his books. Yet, as late as 1989, Robert Merril, editor of Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut, asked for Vonnegut to be “taken more seriously by more critics.”
The difficulty of this hinges on the fact of Vonnegut’s continued output, which makes every analysis of his opus contingent on his next piece. Yet time will doubtlessly be kind to him, because his works are of lasting merit. One can only wish him to continue to keep critics of his works pleading contingency by continuing to write more of them.
Master List of Characters
Bernard V. O’Hare—Vonnegut’s fellow American prisoner of war and peacetime friend; he accompanies Vonnegut on his return back to Dresden.
Mary O’ Hare—Bernard’s pacifist wife; she accuses Vonnegut of planning to glamorize war.
Billy Pilgrim—The time-travelling protagonist; he primarily varies between being a chaplain’s assistant taken prisoner of war by the Germans and between his later life as a successful optometrist.
Barbara Pilgrim—Billy’s daughter; she is worried that her father has lost his mind.
Tralfamadorians—According to Billy, creatures from outer space who can see in the fourth dimension (time) and who kidnaps Billy.
Roland Weary—A cruel American soldier; he is thrown together with Billy and two scouts after the Battle of the Bulge.
Billy’s mom (no name given)—A sad, quiet woman who tries to make meaning in her life out of things purchased in gift shops.
Paul Lazzaro—A rabid little American soldier who has sworn to make Billy Pilgrim pay for the death of Roland Weary’s.
Edgar Derby—A middle-aged American school teacher who will be shot in Dresden for stealing a teapot; he is kind to Billy.
Eliot Rosewater—A patient next to in Billy in the mental ward; he introduces Billy to the works of Kilgore Trout.
Valencia Merble—Billy’s fiancée, and later wife; she is overweight and materialistic.
Montana Wildhack—Star of stag movies and Billy’s mate in the Tralfamadorian zoo.
Howard W. Campbell, Jr.—An American Nazi propagandist who tries to recruit American P.O.W.s into the “Free American Corps.”
Kilgore Trout—A reclusive science fiction author; he becomes friends with Billy.
Maggie White—A beautiful, if simple woman married to one of Billy’s fellow optometrists.
Robert Pilgrim—Billy’s son, a Green Beret fighting in Vietnam.
Bertram Copeland Rumfoord—A history professor in the hospital with Billy; he refuses to believe Billy was in Dresden.
Lily Rumfoord—Rumfoord’s trophy wife.
Wild Bob—A colonel whose regiment has been destroyed, causing his mind to snap; his rantings at the German railyard disturb Billy.
Estimated Reading Time
Slaughterhouse-Five is a simply written and short book. It should take about seven hours to read the entire work. After doing so, it would be good for the student to reread the book to facilitate comprehension of Vonnegut’s style.
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Billy Pilgrim, the central character of Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death, undergoes experiences close to those of Kurt Vonnegut as an infantryman taken prisoner in World War II. As Billy is, Vonnegut was sent to Dresden and sheltered underground while the city was firebombed in February, 1945. After the bombing Vonnegut was put to work extracting corpses from the rubble and incinerating them. The experience left a deep impression, and he struggled to write about it, finally doing so in this his sixth and most famous novel. A film adaptation appeared in 1972.
Billy Pilgrim is a chaplain’s assistant who becomes separated from his unit and who, defenseless and...
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Kurt Vonnegut and Bernard V. O’Hare go back to Dresden, Germany, on Guggenheim money in 1967. Before they leave, Vonnegut goes to O’Hare’s house and meets his wife, Mary O’Hare. Mary is mad at Vonnegut; she knows he is going to write a book about World War II, and she is sure he is going to make war look glamorous and fun. Vonnegut insists that he is not going to write a book that makes war look good; he will even subtitle the book “The Children’s Crusade.” This makes her like him, and they start being friends.
While in Dresden, Vonnegut and O’Hare meet a taxi driver. He shows them around the city and shows them the slaughterhouse where they were prisoners during World War II.
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In full, the title, Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death, says much about Vonnegut’s sixth novel. This is the novel in which Vonnegut confronts his traumatic experience of having been in Dresden when, on February 13, 1945, it was bombed by the Allies, producing a firestorm that virtually destroyed the city and killed perhaps 130,000 people. He survived the raid in the underground meat locker of a slaughterhouse, to spend the following days exhuming corpses from the ruins and cremating them. For him, Dresden becomes the symbol of the senseless horror of war, of humankind’s self-destructive propensities, and of how events arbitrarily overrule the lives of individuals.
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Chapter Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
Kurt Vonnegut: the author and occasional narrator
Bernard V. O’Hare: Vonnegut’s fellow American prisoner of war
Mary O’ Hare: Bernard’s pacifist wife
Vonnegut begins what is otherwise a work of fiction with some straightforward commentary from the author. Before the fiction begins in Chapter Two, Vonnegut announces that most of Slaughterhouse-Five is based in truth. He was a prisoner of war in Dresden near the end of World War II, and while he was there he witnessed its firebombing by the Allied Forces. He returned to Dresden in 1967, with his friend, Bernard O’Hare, in preparation for writing this book.
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Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis
Billy Pilgrim: the time-travelling protagonist; he primarily varies between being a chaplain’s assistant taken prisoner of war by the Germans and between his later life as a successful optometrist
Barbara Pilgrim: Billy’s worried daughter
Tralfamadorians: according to Billy, creatures from outer space who can see in the fourth dimension (time)
Roland Weary: a cruel American soldier who travels with Billy after the Battle of the Bulge
Billy’s mom (no name given): in this chapter, a weak, old lady
Billy Pilgrim is introduced as an involuntary time traveller. After a youth spent in Ilium, New York, Billy is sent to the...
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Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis
Wild Bob: a colonel whose regiment has been destroyed
After Weary and Billy are captured, they hear the shots of the guns that kill the scouts with whom they had been travelling. Weary is relieved of his weapons, as well as his boots, and is given a pair of wooden clogs.
After taking a brief side trip to his optometry practice in 1967, Billy rejoins the prisoners being marched away from the front. Billy returns to 1967, where he drives through the remains of Ilium’s burnt-out ghetto neighborhood. He listens to a Marine major give a speech in favor of increased bombings of North Vietnam at a Lions Club meeting. He drives home for his afternoon nap, which he...
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Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis
Paul Lazzaro: a rabid American with a thirst for revenge
Edgar Derby: a kind, middle-aged American doomed to be shot for stealing a teapot
Billy is unable to sleep the night after his daughter’s wedding. He wanders around the house, knowing he is about to be kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians. He watches a movie in reverse time, then imagines it continuing from World War II all the way to Adam and Eve. After watching the movie in regular time, he goes outside and enters the space ship.
Billy asks why he has been taken. A Tralfamadorian tells him that the moment just is, and that there is no “why” to be asked. Billy is stuck like a bug in...
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Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis
Eliot Rosewater: a patient next to Billy at the insane asylum
Valencia Merble: Billy’s fiancée, and later wife
Montana Wildhack: Billy’s mate in the Tralfamadorian zoo
Billy reads Valley of the Dolls while he is aboard the spaceship. His captor explains to him the curious Tralfamadorian style of writing, which is like reading several telegrams at the same time.
Passing through a time warp sends Billy to two events on a family vacation in the West when he was twelve. Then he goes back to the prison camp. The Americans are led to a bright shed, from which a troop of Englishmen marches out to meet them. The Englishmen are in...
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Chapters 6-7 Summary and Analysis
Billy returns, confused, to his German prison. He finds himself strangely drawn to his coat, which appears to contain two small lumps within the lining.
The Englishman who broke Paul Lazarro’s arm returns to check on him. Lazarro says he is going to have him killed someday. After the other man leaves, Lazarro tells Billy that he is going to have him killed after the war, too.
Billy knows that his death is going to occur in 1976, after he gives a speech about Tralfamadore in Chicago. At this time, Billy has become very popular. He is shot by a laser gun wielded by Paul Lazarro, who has been hiding in the press box.
Billy comes back to life in 1945. He and his two companions...
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Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis
Howard W. Campbell, Jr.: an American Nazi propagandist
Kilgore Trout: a reclusive science fiction author
Maggie White: a beautiful, if simple, woman married to an optometrist
Robert: Billy’s son, the future Green Beret
Howard Campbell comes to the American prisoners. He wants to recruit them to fight against the Russians. He bribes the weary, undernourished men with promises of good food.
Surprisingly, Edgar Derby stands against Campbell’s poisonous promises. He says that the Americans are going to unite with the Russians to crush Nazism. Then the air-raid siren starts to sound. All the men, including Campbell, hide in a...
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Chapters 9-10 Summary and Analysis
Bertram Copeland Rumfoord: a history professor writing on Dresden
Lily Rumfoord: Rumfoord’s trophy wife
After she hears Billy’s airplane has crashed, the hysterical Valencia rushes to the hospital, ripping the exhaust system off her car in an accident en route. Immediately after arriving, she is overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning. Shortly thereafter, she dies.
Billy is still unconscious. He is sharing a room with Bertram Rumfoord. Rumfoord’s wife, Lily, brings Bertram books for the history of the United States Army Air Corps in World War II that he is writing. Rumfoord makes Lily read Truman’s statement on the necessity of bombing...
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