Sunday, May 9, 2021

MMGM: In A Flash by Donna Jo Napoli

It's July 1940 and though there is a war going on, Simona, 8, and Carolina, 5, have just learned that they will be moving from Italy to Tokyo, Japan for perhaps a year or two. It's only been half a year since their mother died, and now they will be leaving their beloved Nonna, too, in four days. The father, a chef, has been offered a job at the Italian embassy, cooking for the Italian ambassador and his wife, both of whom refuse to eat Japanese food. 

Four days after arriving in Tokyo, Simona begins public school, not knowing the language or having any friends. But by December, she and Carolina have both learned enough Japanese to get by, though Simona still has no friends at school. And within a year, they are both fluent and quite assimilated into Japanese customs. Simona still has no real friends, except Aiko who refuses to acknowledge her at school. Although Simona and Carolina are the children of a servant, the Japanese kids believe they are rich and living luxuriously and that is why they are snubbed. 

When the United States is attacked by Japan and enters the war, everyone assumes America will easily be defeated by Japan. After all, Japan, Italy, and Germany had signed the Tripartite Pact in 1940 pledging to come to each other's aid should their country be attacked. But everything changes in 1943 when Italy surrenders to the Allies. Suddenly, Italians are Japan's enemy and they are all forced into an internment camp, where Simona and Carolina are separated from their father.   

The sisters are able to escape, and begin to make their way across the countryside. As they make their way though Japan, they are able to survive with the help of three women living together, including a manga artist, then with help from a blind washerwoman in Tokyo where their father used to bring the embassy's dirty sheets, and ultimately finding themselves in a Catholic mission in Hiroshima in the spring and summer of 1945.

In a Flash is, to say the least, a harrowing story to read, yet it is compelling and hard to put down as well. Napoli has certainly done her research on what it was like to live in Japan during WWII. What makes this story unique is that the it is written in the first person perspective, by a citizen of one of America's enemies living in a country of another enemy. But while Simona is Italian she isn't political, she is much more an observer and reporter of what she sees around her, often without understanding it. She may sometimes voice some of the propaganda she has been told about the United States, and often observes the behavioral result of Japan's propaganda in those around her, but she remains a child trying to make sure she and her sister survive.

It was difficult reading about the "patriotic" propaganda, but even more difficult was the incredible level of rationing and starvation inflicted on people in the name of victory because it was so realistically portrayed. On the other hand, Simona and Carolina's will to survive in the face of adversity is the stuff of great historical fiction.

I read a lot of Napoli's books and In a Flash is now one of my very favorites. There are a lot of themes and a lot of information to be gleaned from this compassionate thought-provoking, eye-opening novel.

Front matter consists of a map of Japan and back matter consists of a Postscript, Notes on Research, and an extensive Bibliography.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and you can see all of this week's wonderful MMGM books thanks to Greg at Always in the Middle


  1. Wow, this is another look at that war for sure. Thanks, Alex, I will put it on my list.

  2. What a different perspective. Napoli always shares historical POV with authenticity. After reading many adult WWII novels recently, I need a MG one for balance. Thanks for sharing.

  3. This sounds like a fantastic story. I don't think I've ever read a WWII book set in Japan. Glad you liked it so much.

  4. I am intrigued by this unique perspective. Eager to read now! Thank you, Alex!

  5. This is a must read! This story offers a very different perspective. Is it based loosely on a personal story? Read THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM by Kathleen Burkinshaw and loved it! Will be checking out this story. Love unique historical fiction!

  6. My heart beat faster just reading your review! I'll be giving this a read during the summer months. Thanks for featuring on MMGM.