20 Jul / The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw [in Shelf Awareness]
Descended from a noble samurai family, 12-year-old Yuriko Ishikawa enjoys a privileged life in Hiroshima, Japan. While World War II rages on multiple continents, for now the seventh-grader exists in relative peace. Even when she’s at school, with U.S. B-29s flying overhead, her legs wobbling “as if made of cooked ramen,” she can’t help approaching her teacher about her family history project; the teacher’s praise just might impress her classmates and earn her a friend.
At home, Yuriko relies on books for company – the stories help her “forget about being lonely and about the war.” Her mother died seven years ago, and she doesn’t get enough time with her beloved Papa, whose newspaper publisher duties keep him away. She tries to avoid her critical Aunt Kimiko and annoying five-year-old cousin, Genji: “I had yet to understand why I had to be so delicate while he got to act like a monkey,” she grumbles. Fortunately, just a short walk away is her best friend Machiko, with whom she can always share her deepest secrets.
In spite of the looming war, daily life continues as normally as possible, with family dinners, outings with Papa, and choosing special kimono fabric to make festive holiday wear. “I am not fond of change,” Yuriko admits, but change proves inevitable. Plans commence for a double wedding to welcome two new family members, including a stepmother who Yuriko fears will steal even more time away from Papa.
The war draws ever closer as a neighbor’s son is conscripted to fight, and Papa gets the real news about what’s happening to the Imperial Army. And then a casual comment made by an acquaintance unsettles everything Yuriko has ever known about herself, her family, her history. Soon thereafter, the atomic bomb is introduced to the world with an “intense burst of white light” that, in just seconds, reduces Yuriko’s life to rubble and ash. Somehow, she must live on.
Making her fiction debut with The Last Cherry Blossom, Kathleen Burkinshaw humanizes the face of the U.S.’s wartime enemy by adapting the experiences of her Japanese mother, who grew up in Hiroshima and was 12 when the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945. Writing the novel was an organic extension of years of school presentations about Hiroshima that Burkinshaw did at her own daughter’s request. The result is a resonating narrative of hope, resilience, and forgiveness, told in the thoughtful voice of an ordinary 12-year-old who survives extraordinary circumstances.
Introducing each chapter with quotations from newspapers, radio announcements, and propaganda posters, Burkinshaw deftly weaves in historical context to enhance her personal story. She falters occasionally with what feels like unfinished details (a passing reference to Japan’s colonization of Korea seems especially clumsy), but Burkinshaw’s intended middle-grade audience will hardly notice such brief stumbles. What will surely linger longest is the immeasurable cost of war, and the fervent reminder that every victim is “someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, or child.”
Shelf Talker: In this debut middle-grade novel based on the author’s mother’s experiences, 12-year-old Yuriko of Hiroshima undergoes shattering changes in the final year of World War II.
Readers: Middle Grade