Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Big War: "What Have We Done?"- Hiroshima by Laurence Yep

Laurence Yep calls this slim volume Hiroshima: A Novella, but it is less a fiction work than a literary docu-drama, shifting its focus, chapter by chapter, between deceptively ordinary morning life in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, The Enola Gay and its attendant B-29's flying toward the city, and expositions of the history of the Pacific war with Japan and the history of the bomb itself.

In stark, almost journalistic prose, Yep describes an ordinary morning in wartime Hiroshima, as his fictional character, twelve-year-old Sachi, joins classmates in the labor of clearing fire lanes inside the city in expectation of American bombings. Air raid warnings, shelters, and pitifully ineffective hoods worn to protect against fire bombings are part of the children's daily experience, but no human preparations can shield them against the coming destruction. Above them the lead B-29 reports a propitious hole in the clouds directly over the city and signals the Enola Gay to begin its run over the city. As its crew records the incredible devastation below, the overwhelmed co-pilot scribbles the question humanity has asked since, "What have we done?"

On the ground Yep factually describes the unbelievable effects of the blast: the nuclear wind, the silhouettes of vanished victims burnt into concrete walls, the nuclear rain which both extinguished the fires and brought death by radiation to those who escaped the blast.

Yep backtracks to describe the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which began the war and the stubborn resistance of the Japanese people beyond the capitulation of the Third Reich which made the use of the atomic bomb seem inevitable. He moves forward in time to describe the reconciliation of the American and Japanese people, including the medical treatment of the Hiroshima Maidens, among whom he includes his fictional victim Sachi, and the peace movement which followed, touching upon the story of Sadako and the thousand cranes, the all-too-real threat of nuclear winter from the world's arsenal of weapons, and the nuclear treaties which now keep the threat of such weapons under tenuous control. Yep's final sentence is "It must not drop again."

Although this book is slim and the language simple, it is not a easy book for very young readers to take in. Its best audience would be middle readers, especially those who use Hiroshima as part of a class unit to explore the history and literature of this often glossed-over part of American history. Individual readers with some knowledge of the period will still find both facts and figures and ethical questions to ponder within. An extensive bibliography is appended.

Other significant works for young readers on this subject include My Hiroshima by Junko Morimoto, Hiroshima No Pika by Toshi Maruki, and Shin's Tricycle by Tatsuharu Kosama.

For capable older readers there is, of course, John Hersey's well-known work, Hiroshima.

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