BOOK REVIEW: Sachiko A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo
Many readers will be familiar with the children’s book, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr, which was about a girl who survived the bombing of Hiroshima during World War II. It was a fictional retelling of Sadako Sasaki’s short life, and is the kind of tale that, once you’ve read it once, will stay with you for life.
Sachiko – A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story also gives an account of a hibakusha (a survivor of the atomic bombing of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki), and as such will likely appeal to the same readership. Sachiko’s book is an important one about coming to grips with tragedy and how one can ultimately discover hope.
Sachiko is written by Caren Stelson, an American author whose father fought the Nazis in the Second World War. In 2005 Stelson witnessed and was haunted by Sachiko Yasui’s talk about surviving the bombing of Nagasaki. Yasui agreed to let Stelson tell her story and the pair would eventually meet up five times to discuss what happened.
This book is an A4 hardcover full of excellent photographs, maps and informative pages that help give context to the war and America’s decision to bomb Japan. The experiences of Sachiko and her family are told in the third person. It begins with Sachiko’s family of seven living in poverty and subsisting on a diet of hot water and wheat balls. Stelson then describes the day the bomb (dubbed “Fat Man”) was unleashed from the sky. In no uncertain terms, the place was decimated.
The city had turned to ash.
It is these brutal moments and descriptions, including those of the aftermath, that reveal a raw version of the events. The prose also carefully straddles the lines between an honest account and being respectful of the dead. Consider:
All around, not a house, not a tree stood. Not a leaf, stem, or blade of grass remained. Bits of paper fell from the sky.
Uncle wasted no time. He turned his hands into shovels and dug Sachiko’s playmates out of the earth. One by one, four limp children lay side by side on their backs, their mouths filled with dirt.
Dead. All of them.
Sachiko was approximately 800m from the epicentre of the bomb. Her younger brother Toshi died on the day of the attack while her elder brothers, Aki and Ichiro would pass in the following months from radiation poisoning. Sachiko and other survivors also got sick from radiation and the nuclear fallout, but lived to tell their tale. Sachiko suffered from delirium, fever, bleeding gums, lesions and hair loss as well as a bout of thyroid cancer. It is harrowing to read about these gruesome symptoms, but the story does take on a hopeful note at times too.
After the atomic bombing, a rumour had spread that nothing in Hiroshima or Nagasaki would grow for seventy years. But flowers had bloomed. The graceful limbs of oleander trees, full of pink blossoms, swayed in the breeze. Morning glories sent their tendrils up fence posts. Sweet potatoes, wheat and corn sprouted. Earthworms moving through soil gave people hope.
The story of Sachiko and other hibakusha are important, as they chronicle a fundamental part of history. This book also supports Yasui’s work as an activist for peace, as it is a cautionary tale about nuclear weaponry, but also one of hardship and human resilience. At 144 pages there were elements that could have been elaborated on further, but it remains a well-researched piece of narrative non-fiction and essential reading for anyone interested in learning from the perils and tragedy of war.
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