Monday, August 15, 2016

Changes:The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw

"The season changes when the last cherry blossom falls," said Papa.

Twelve-year-old Yuriko feels nothing but changes around her. Since Mama died, Papa has always been the center of her life, but then Aunt Komiko and her annoying five-year-old son Genji come to live with them. And then Papa tells her that he is going to marry Sumiyo, a kind woman who has helped out since Mama died, and the new people in the house all seem to come between her and her precious time with Papa. Komiko is always critical, ordering her around and seeming to find endless fault with her, while making her watch the rambunctious Genji, and though Sumiyo is good to her, Yuriko hates to share Papa with her.

In the Hiroshima of 1945, the long war, once so far away, now intrudes on everything, even at school:

"Get under your desks--now!" Yakamura-sensei shouted above the lonesome wail of the air raid siren. The teacher's voice did not waver, yet her hand had a light tremor as she pointed at the floor.

The familiar hum of the B-sans--what we called the American B-29s that flew overhead--thundered in my ears. The engines were so loud that the floor vibrated beneath my desk. I worried. Will we actually get bombed? Will this desk protect me? Is my papa safe?

Her best friend Machiko is forced by her father to destroy her beloved jazz records under orders of the government, although she hides her favorite under a mat in her bedroom. At school the students are given bamboo stakes to make into spears and made to practice defending their homeland. Strict rationing of metal, food, and fabric make life harder, and then news comes that Tokyo has been almost completely destroyed by a firebombing raid from the feared B-29s.

And then a chance remark by a neighbor lady forces Papa to tell Yuriko a family secret that seems to shake the very ground beneath her feet. She learns that she is actually Aunt Kumiko's daughter, the product of a dishonorable out-of-wedlock birth, that her beloved Papa is actually her grandfather, and no one will speak of her real father. Suddenly, Yuriko feels like an interloper in her once favored place in the family.

The friend she has relied on, Machiko, is forced to leave school and go to work at an aircraft factory, and Yuriko feels very alone at school and home. When she and her friend manage to be together, they listen to Machiko's secret record and try to look forward to the coming Cherry Blossom Festival.

We managed to find a picnic spot right under a beautiful cherry tree in full bloom. Petals of light and dark pink rippled with white hung on the branches.

Machiko and her family joined us. We began to unpack the delicious food we would share.

"Yuriko, the cherry blossoms seem pinker than usual. Do you think so?" said Machiko quietly. "I think we need to enjoy the beauty more this year since there is so much ugliness with the war."

I took a bite of my sweet rice cake. "We are both very lucky to have our families."

"And each other!" we added in unison.

And as that last blossom falls from Hiroshima's cherry trees, older readers who know history will foresee the great changes that will soon come for Yuriko and everyone in Hiroshima, Japan, and all the world, in Kathleen Burkinshaw's The Last Cherry Blossom (Sky Pony Press, 2016). Younger readers may not know that history, and the terrors the first atomic bomb brings will let them experience anew what it was to live through that significant moment in history.

Published today on the anniversary of the surrender of imperial Japan, in this beautifully but realistically written first novel author Burkinshaw lets Yuriko's honest first-person narrative recount what that moment in history was like. Chapter headings which feature headlines changing from "Imperial Army Continues Successful Attacks in China," to "Prepare For Final Battle on Imperial Soil," foreshadow the coming end of the war, as the author sensitively but honestly portrays the horror of the atomic attack and the following struggle for survival with emphasis on individual and family resilience and hope for the future.

Intimate and detailed, a poignant immersion in a particular time and place, this story is yet universal in its timeless theme of coming of age in a time of life and death, of war and peace, a time of the breaking of nations.

"Told with reverence and authenticity... tragedy and hope collide in this promising middle-grade debut." says Kirkus Reviews.

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