Saturday, September 24, 2016

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story by Caren Stelson

Not long ago, I reviewed The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw, the fictionalized story about a young girl who survived the bombing on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, based on the author's mother's experience.  It is a one of the most compelling books I've read about the aftermath of an atomic bomb and one that I highly recommend.

Sachiko is a riveting nonfiction narrative of one girl who survived the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.  Sachiko Yasui was only 6 years old when the United States dropped a second atomic bomb only 1/2 mile from she was playing house with her friends in an air raid cave.  Life had been difficult for the Yasui's during the war, they were a large, but close family - older brothers Aki -14, Ichiro - 12, younger sister Misa - 4, and baby brother Toshi -2, and food shortages always left everyone hungry, usually living on only hot water with wheat balls.

On August 9, 1945, when the air raid siren went off, their father was at work at the Koyagi shipyard, so only their mother and the children went to the air raid cave.  After the all clear sounded, the two older boys went their way, Mrs. Yasui, Misa and Toshi went home, Sachiko stayed behind with her friends. Suddenly, before anyone could react to the incoming enemy plane, the bomb was dropped and life for the Yasui family would never be the same.

In the immediate aftermath, the friends Sachiko was playing with were dead, as was baby brother Toshi.  A few days after the bombing, the Yasui family, along with Sachiko's surviving uncle, left Nagasaki for the country.  But getting away wasn't enough.  Aki and Ichiro and her uncle all succumbed to radiation poisoning shortly after.

The family decided to return to Nagasaki and try to rebuild their lives, but the after effects of the atomic bomb continued to plague them, and everyone else who survived.  Oddly, survivors were not allowed to talk about the bombing of Nagaski, and when Sachiko started school again, she was bullied by kids who were unaffected by what happened for the way she looked. Later, Sachiko was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, from which she recovered.

But Sachiko's experiences as a hibakusha (a survivor of the atomic bomb) left her without a way to talk about what happened and she spent years looking for the right words that would release her memories.  Along the way, Sachiko discovered Gandhi, Helen Keller and Martin Luther King, Jr. who became spiritual mentors to her.

Eventually, Sachiko does find the words she has been seeking to tell her story.  In 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing, Sachiko, at 56, was finally able to address an audience of sixth-grade children and speak about that fateful day.  Now, guided by her spiritual mentors and her father's memory, Sachiko's words are about peace for the future.

I started reading Sachiko one evening and didn't stop until I was finished, it is that emotionally compelling. And yet, it is hard to imagine, and therefore, difficult to write about the depth of the trauma bombing victims like Sachiko suffered.  Not just physically and emotionally, but the loss of home, family, friends, neighbors, people one has known all one's life.

Caren Stelson interviewed Sachiko several times, using an interpreter, and has presented her story with a clarity that really captures what life was like for a young hibakusha.  In between the narrative of Sachiko's life are sidebars and inserts that further discuss important topics such as Radiation Sickness and Long-Term Effects of Radiation.  Reading these, you will immediately notice how well researched this book is, yet it never strays from Sachiko's story.  Stelson has also included numerous photographs, including the few surviving photos of Sachiko and her family.  Back matter consists of is a Glossary of Japanese Words, Chapter Notes, and Bibliography

Sachiko's story reminds us of the destructive power of atomic and nuclear weapons, a power that should never be taken lightly.

Sachiko is an excellent narrative of one person's experience of the bombing of Nagasaki and its aftermath, and for a fuller picture, you might want to pair it with Steve Sheinkin's 2012 outstanding work Bomb: the Race to Build - and Steal - the World's Most Dangerous Weapon or Edward T. Sullivans's 2007 book The Ultimate Weapon: The Race to Develop the Atomic Bomb. And, of course, do match it up with Kathleen Burkinshaw's The Last Cherry Blossom.

If you are interested in reading about other hibakuska, including Sachiko, be sure to visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan - Testimony of Hibakusha

This book will be available on October 1, 2016

FYI: As you may already know, Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story has been longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley


  1. This sounds like a powerful read. I love that you read it in one sitting. This is getting added to my list. Thanks for sharing!

  2. It's astounding to me that people survived the bombings. And just astounding that they could not talk about it. I can't imagine the hidden pain of stuffing all that trauma. Thanks Alex, Caren, and Sachiko. I do want to read and be willing to share in the pain of this story.