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Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan's fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden fom its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.
This is a story that offers young readers insight into how children lived during the war, while also introducing them to Japanese culture. Based loosely on author Kathleen Burkinshaw’s mother’s firsthand experience surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, The Last Cherry Blossom hopes to warn readers of the immense damage nuclear war can bring, while reminding them that the “enemy” in any war is often not so different from ourselves.
Okay, this is a really hard book for me to review. Why? Because it's tragic. Spoiler alert: people die. Because it's Hiroshima in 1945, and very bad things happened in that time and place. Things that are truly unspeakable, and which–after actually reading about–I really don't feel up to discussing.
Luckily for both my reviewing struggles and my mental sanity, the attack doesn't happen until about 3/4 of the way through the book. That leaves approximately 170 pages for me to analyze, which are also extremely challenging. How do I provide any sort of a coherent review of a book focused so entirely on a culture I know nothing about?
Because seriously, if this book were set in America–and didn't have an atomic bomb in it–it would be pretty screwy. I've read very few characters like Yuriko: she's curious and opinionated on one hand, but completely submissive and blindly devoted to her father on the other. There are some major bombshells dropped–oh my gosh, can't believe I just tried to use bombing as a metaphor to talk about The Last Cherry Blossom. No, there are some big reveals that take place later in the novel, some really life-shattering reveals that should rock Yuriko. And they do, sort of, for like two chapters. But then they never turn out to be very important, and I just generally get the feeling that they were kind of stray plotlines. All they really accomplished was to drive home just how foreign and patriarchal Japanese society was at the time. Because seriously: Yuriko is expected to just swing with things. And she is so used to conforming to the expectations of the people around her that she buries her emotions deep down and never actually confronts anyone about the (either terribly heartless or magnificently kind, depending on how you look at it) choices that they made and then never told her about.
Gah, I wish I could go into more detail on this but I can't! Anyway, The Last Cherry Blossom is not set in America. It's set in WWII-era Japan, and the novel provides a (presumably accurate, though I'd have no idea if it weren't) glimpse into the intimate everyday life in Japan during the war. I caught some fascinating parallels in this story to books I've read about life on the American homefront (especially in the descriptions of people gathering scraps of metal to give to the government). I also thought it was very cool, just in general since I haven't read any other books set in Japan, to get such a vivid depiction of Japan's rich cultural traditions. There are descriptions of a wedding, several holidays, a feast or two, a soldier sending-off, and–later–funeral rites. Added together with Yuriko's deeply ingrained sense of proper behavior (including not showing emotion in public–like, ever–and never arguing with her elders), this creates a vivid depiction of Japanese culture in the 1940s.
I could go on talking about The Last Cherry Blossom forever, chewing it over, analyzing all the new insights on history that I've gained from it, occasionally complaining about the random leaps forward in time that skipped details I wanted to learn more about. I think I'll stop now, though, just to keep this review at a reasonable length. I definitely recommend The Last Cherry Blossom, if for no other reason than that it is literally the only book I know of that brings readers into the hearts and minds of the nation of Japan. So often in WWII books we only see the brutality of Japanese military actions. I think it's really important that we have books like The Last Cherry Blossom that widen our perspective, showing us how people during wartime can't always be sorted into just "the good guys and the evil enemy." We need more books that show how the themes of heartbreak and sorrow are woven into the narratives of both sides of any war. We need to be shown that people don't have to be on the right side of a war to feel pain when their loved ones die. The Last Cherry Blossom accomplishes this beautifully, and I truly respect and admire Burkinshaw for writing it.
Do you know of any other books written from a Japanese perspective during WWII? If so, post the title in the comments section below so I can check them out!
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.