So it goes: Resentment still smolders over 1973 book burning in small N.D. town

HANNAH JOHNSON, The Bismarck Tribune

Forty years ago, a small North Dakota town became famous — or infamous — when its school board decided to dispose of books it deemed “objectionable” in a particularly incendiary way.

It burned them.

In November 1973, a media firestorm descended on Drake, a town of 650, when news broke that the school district had burned 32 copies of “Slaughterhouse-Five” in the school furnace. The work by Kurt Vonnegut is considered a classic.

The person at the center of the controversy was a new high school English teacher named Bruce Severy. He and his family had moved to Drake the previous year from California. In news reports at the time, much of the town considered them outsiders who hadn’t much tried to fit in with the more traditional, church-going insiders, The Bismarck Tribune reported.

Severy, young and idealistic, decided to assign a couple of more contemporary novels, thinking they would resonate with his students — “Slaughterhouse-Five,” published in 1969, and “Deliverance” by James Dickey, published in 1970.

It worked, for the most part. However, one student found the material distasteful and showed her mother, who then complained to the school board. From there, things got out of hand.

The idea of book burning evokes a very visceral response in many. It is a highly symbolic gesture, reminiscent of censorship in Nazi Germany.

Of course, the Drake School Board is a far cry from a fascist regime, though the chairman at the time was — in a fantastic coincidence that further fueled the media — a man with the last name of McCarthy. But he was no Joe, the man known for the Red Scare.

And no one seemed to realize the provocative effect of burning the books. For the next few weeks, the small town battled to reclaim its reputation.

In the words of the now-famous refrain from “Slaughterhouse-Five”: “So it goes.”

Three books were set aside to be burned: “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Deliverance,” and a short story anthology with works by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, among others. The objection to the first had to do with profanity, the second with some gay-themed material and the third because the first two rendered all of Severy’s choices suspect.

According to reports at the time, then-Superintendent Dale Fuhrman said the burning was simply how the school got rid of any unwanted material or waste. If the books weren’t going to be used, it seemed practical to burn them. In retrospect, Fuhrman said then, it would have been better to just store them.

Students were asked to hand in the offending books. If they didn’t, the books were confiscated from lockers.

Reports vary on who alerted the media. Muryl Olson, who had younger siblings attending Drake High School at the time and whose family was friends with Severy’s, said his mother told a friend at The Minot Daily News. Other Drake residents say Severy told the media himself, working “the sympathy vote.”

There is no love lost, even after four decades, between Severy and some Drake residents who remember the burning.

“He never made a real effort anyway, but this just made it worse,” said Shirley Neuharth, who was secretary at the school at the time.

“I don’t think the town was against them,” said Bernice Smith, whose son, Dale, was in Severy’s class and who ran the local drugstore with her husband. “They just didn’t want to participate.”

Smith, along with other parents, petitioned the school board to hire another English teacher for the remainder of the year, which it did. Most students transferred into the new teacher’s class — many at the behest of their parents — while about five stayed in Severy’s.

Severy’s contract was not renewed after that year. He and his family moved to Fargo and eventually back to California. In 1975, with the help of the ACLU, he settled a case against the Drake School Board, awarding him $5,000 and stipulating the books could be taught in the school. He died a few years ago.

Katie Olson, one of his students at the time and sister to Muryl Olson, said Severy was different and so he was ostracized.

“I loved his classes because they were interesting and challenging and he was opening us up to new things,” she said.

Katie Olson’s family was solidly in Severy’s camp. She and her brother Mark staged a sit-in at the school and both stayed in his class after the new teacher was hired.

Then again, she said, she and her siblings were already known in the school for questioning authority — getting in trouble for wearing their hair too long (her brothers) or for wearing pants to school (she and her sister).

Another firmly on Severy’s side? Kurt Vonnegut himself. As the book burning made national news, Vonnegut wrote a biting letter to the Drake School Board, saying, “If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.”

For other students, the national media was exciting, if not particularly relevant to their lives.

“To me, a book is a book,” said Allen Martin, a former student and current Drake resident. “It never bothered me what was in it.”

“(The national media) was a big deal,” said former student and Drake resident Mary Gange Field. It also was, she said, mostly parents taking sides and students pretty much continued with their lives.

Very few actually thought the books were particularly problematic. The lasting bitterness and resentment are aimed at Severy himself and at the national media.

“You were scared to talk to anyone because everything was taken out of context,” Smith said.

“It was not the way it was portrayed at all,” Neuharth said.

Looking back since 1973, Dave Senechal, another student of Severy’s, said the town got sort of a raw deal.

It’s not like people were burning books in the street, dancing and cheering, he said.

“They were decent people from a small town and they were not interested in politics,” he said. “They thought they were doing the right thing.”

Neuharth said the media were there under “false pretenses” — if Severy hadn’t alerted them, she said, no one would even have known it had taken place.

“I didn’t talk to the man after it happened,” she said.

A number of current or former Drake residents approached by The Tribune refused to talk, said they didn’t remember or avoided talking by suggesting others to talk to. One point many agreed on: The book burning cast a noticeable pall over the town.

“It put a dark shadow over this town for a while,” said Noel Hanenberg, a longtime resident.

These days, Drake’s population is down by half and the school has integrated with nearby Anamoose. The coal-burning furnace stoked with Vonnegut all those years ago still heats the school.

The high school’s two English teachers, Kim Meckle and Jean Bartz, don’t teach any of the three books. In the course of five and 21 years teaching in Drake, respectively, neither has ever had a parent question any of their novel choices.

The school library, which also is now the town’s public library, does not contain “Slaughterhouse-Five” or “Deliverance,” although a student once ordered “Slaughterhouse-Five” on inter-library loan, said Meckle, who is also the librarian.

Meckle said she doesn’t censor anything in teaching or in the library, but is wary of igniting long-dormant embers. After all, the incident is still a bit of a sore spot among some.

It is 40 years later and the memory has mostly receded from national consciousness, even as it lingers for Drake.

So it goes.