Friday, July 20, 2007


Yep, Laurence. (1995). Hiroshima. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 0590208322.

Hiroshima is a novella of historical fiction about the first atom bomb dropped by the United States armed forces on Hiroshima, Japan during World War II. The true part is the war part. Pilot Colonel Tibbets, flying the Enola Gay. The bomb is fact. It killed thousands of unsuspecting people on the day of detonation and for years after. The fictionalized part is how we see the day through the eyes of two young girls—Riko and Sachi. Sachi goes to school, but because of the war, they are given jobs to “help defend Japan against the American invasion” they know is coming in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sachi and her classmates help the adults wreck houses. They sort through the remains, looking for useful parts they can save and reuse, such as roof tiles. It is hot, dusty work and the muggy air makes the dust stick to their sweaty faces. To make the work go faster, the children chant in time as they wield their shovels.

But Riko works at the army headquarters answering phones and taking messages—work that would normally be done by soldiers.

Before long, the bomb is dropped—and the author includes a concise definition of what the bomb is, how it works and what happens at detonation—and the city is destroyed. Riko is killed but Sachi survives—though the skin on her face and one arm is melted. Sachi ends up going to the United States for plastic surgery, becoming one of the famous Hiroshima Maidens whose medical procedures become very controversial.

The ingenious thing about this novella is that it tells the story of a seriously tragic event creatively through the eyes of two young adults. It is simple in it’s description—matter of fact, even—as though much more detail would render the work overly dramatic and therefore obscene. This element of sparse detail may be a subtle cultural marker—in contrast to the typically American Hollywoodization to many such stories. In just fifty pages, the author manages to report on a factual event, seemingly without really taking sides, but revealing how two young girls might have interpreted the incident.

As for cultural cues, I didn’t see anything particularly cultural per se. There are details mentioned very matter-of-factly, such as how Japanese houses are made of wood and paper causing them to catch fire easily, subtle references to the labor service corps—suggesting an element of socialism or communism, or simply a war youth corps and reference made to physical artifacts such as streetcars and castles (but nothing to typical enough to give away the geography of the setting other than to explicitly say that it is in Japan).

So, is it devoid of cultural markers? Or are we, as American readers (or I as a non-Asian reader) conditioned to think that if it doesn’t have the stereotypical markers we recognize, then it’s not multicultural? Do we have to read about rice, kimonos and paper cranes to think of something as accurately Japanese? Does the absence of such features help to bridge a gap? To make what might be a foreign story, less “foreign” by excluding details that might mark it as Japanese? These are the questions this story raised for me. In my opinion, the absence of those details made the story stronger because in its simplicity, it is deeply pure and truer to the events—it avoids clouding the readers’ minds with images that simply get in the way of the author’s purpose (which is, I assume, to teach the readers about a historical event while imparting a sense of the emotions that may have come along with it).

Reviews (per

Publishers Weekly:
Yep's account of the bombing of Hiroshima and its devastating aftermath is at once chilling and searing, hushed and thundering. Within a factual framework, the author sets the fictional story of a girl named Sachi, allegedly a composite of several young residents of the bombed city. On the morning of August 6, 1945, 12-year-old Sachi and her classmates pull on their pitifully inadequate air-raid hoods when an alarm sounds, signifying the approach of an American bomber. They and others feel, ironically, a deep sense of relief when the aircraft passes by-the plane's mission, in fact, is to scout out the weather over Hiroshima; if there are clouds, the Enola Gay will be directed to drop its atom bomb on another city. But a single gap opens in the clouds directly over the target site, and "the sunlight pours through the hole on to the city." This is the last bit of brightness in Yep's story, which with haunting simplicity describes the actual bombing: "There is a blinding light like a sun. There is a boom like a giant drum. There is a terrible wind. Houses collapse like boxes. Windows break everywhere. Broken glass swirls like angry insects." Though Yep's spare, deliberate description of the bomb's consequences delivers a brutal emotional punch-and though it is on the whole extremely well suited to the target audience-his novella has some jarring stylistic elements. Broken into brief chapters ("The Bomb," "The City," "The Attack," "Destruction," "Peace?"), the narrative is choppy. The text, for example, makes a hasty chronological jump from the announcement that WWII is over to Sachi's experience as one of 25 "Hiroshima Maidens," who in 1955 traveled to the United States for plastic surgery to correct disfiguring burns. And although expressing an opinion is clearly the novelist's prerogative, it should be noted that the story Yep relays is hardly balanced; witness the two simple sentences about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, which make no mention of the resulting human casualties: "Four years before, on December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked American ships in Hawaii without warning. Caught by surprise, many ships and planes were wrecked at the naval base, Pearl Harbor." Yet in what is one of his tale's most haunting moments, Yep interjects the resonant words of an American-the Enola Gay's copilot-who, surveying the destruction just after the bomb has hit Hiroshima, scribbles a note to himself: "What have we done?" This powerful chronicle ensures that what was done on that awful day will remain in readers' memories for a very long time. Ages 8-11.

School Library Journal:
Grade 4-6?Through a stacatto, present-tense narration that moves back and forth between the experiences of a 12-year-old girl and the men on the Enola Gay, Yep's novella tells the events of the day the first atomic bomb was dropped and its aftermath. Sachi survives but is badly burned; her sister dies and her soldier father is killed in action. For three years the girl spends most of her time indoors, as newcomers to the city fear the scarred survivors. Then she travels to America for plastic surgery, which enables her to take part in her society again. She returns to Japan, hoping to help other victims. Yep ends with two chapters on the destructive potential of nuclear warfare and on some of the efforts being made toward disarmament. His words are powerful and compelling, and the facts he presents make readers realize the horrors of that day and its impact beyond. As a fictional character, Sachi never becomes much more than a name, but even so, readers will be moved by her tale. Hiroshima has a more adult format than Junko Morimoto's more personal My Hiroshima (Viking, 1990) or Toshi Maruki's Hiroshima No Pika (Lothrop, 1982), both of which tell the story in pictures as well as in words.

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