I recently had a conversation with Caren Stelson, the author of Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story (Carolrhoda Books, 2016). We had just learned that her book was on the longlist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. “I’m flabbergasted,” said Caren when I offered my congratulations. “This is so affirming.”
We met in a Minneapolis suburb at a Panera restaurant amid the big box stores of Home Depot and Costco, a place far away from Nagasaki and Sachiko Yasui. Yet as Caren and I talked, the incredible story of Sachiko began to come alive for me. It was almost as if Sachiko herself were the third person at our small table.
Sachiko, who is now 78, was six years old on August 9, 1945, the day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Because she was a child on that day, she wants children everywhere to know her story. “I think it must be very hard for you to feel what happened because you are so very young,” she said to the children of a sixth grade class, “but I’ll try to speak about how strong you can be as a human being when you encounter difficulties in the future.”
Sachiko’s story is told in short chapters that cover fifty years of her life from the day of the bombing, when she went out to play with friends, to the 50th anniversary of the bombing when, at age 56, she was invited to speak to a sixth grade class about her experience as a hibakusha (“explosion-affected people”). Between Sachiko’s chapters are interspersed sections of supplemental material about such topics as the history of World War II, the bombing of Japan, and the long-term effects of radiation.
The writing is straightforward, never preachy, with quick, punchy sentences appropriate to the reading level of young people, yet not condescending, as readers of all levels can appreciate the concrete details that bring the story to life. Camphor trees, cicadas, and Sachiko’s grandmother’s green bowl found in the ruins of their home work as recurring motifs and metaphors to illuminate connections to nature, the past, and re-birth. They also serve as touchstones for the reader to navigate through a fifty-year time span.
The arc of this story takes readers on a journey from great sorrow and massive tragedy to incredible hope and the wish for peace. The story is personal and yet universal as Sachiko, who was inspired not only by her parents, but also by Helen Keller, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, comes to find forgiveness and the courage to tell others about the power of healing. Her talk on the 50th anniversary of the bombing was the beginning of many years of telling her story and advocating for peace. “What happened to me must never happen to you,” she said.
As Sachiko stood before the children on that day, she was reminded of her three brothers and sister. Toshi died the day of the bombing; her brothers Aki and Ichiro, who suffered from extensive radiation injuries, died shortly thereafter; and her sister, Misa, some years later from leukemia. Sachiko herself battled thyroid cancer that took her voice until she fought to regain it. Both her mother and father were gone. She alone had survived.
“This is an important day to talk about peace,” she said. “I hope to give you something to move your heart, to make you think of our peace for the future by telling you about the real misery that happened in the past. To make it happen, I have to share my heart . . . with you.” And so she told the children her story. It began the way this book opens with a six-year-old girl who was hungry because of the long war, who waited for the family hen to lay an egg, and then went out to play with her friends. Above them, the children heard the sound of a B-29. At 11:02 when the bomb exploded, they were just half a mile from the hypocenter. Her world was demolished. “Roaring winds ripped the bark off the camphor trees and split their trunks . . . .Dust erased the lines of the earth. Day turned to night.”
Sochiko lay under the rubble until her uncle found her and pulled her out. That evening the family buried her four friends. Sachiko’s little brother, Toshi, who was killed by a sharp stick to his head, was dead in her mother’s arms. He also was buried near the four friends.
During our conversation, I learned that Caren was inspired to write about Sachiko after hearing her speak at a Minneapolis ceremony to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We talked about Caren’s five trips to Nagasaki to interview Sachiko and her extensive research (evident by the notes and bibliography in the back of the book). Sachiko came to find her own voice because of what she learned from Helen Keller, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King—and her father, who said to her, “This is the only world we live in, Sachiko. Never say evil words; otherwise, we’ll not see peace. Hate only produces hate.”
It has been a long time since I’ve been so moved by a story. The book, although written for young people, helped me to better understand a war I was born into. I would have been about the same age as Sachiko’s little brother, Toshi, when the atomic bombs exploded on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
When we began our conversation, Caren said she had learned how much we don’t know or remember about that horrible day and how the national narrative we are told is not the only one to examine. “We have to be careful,” she said, “about the way we read our history because there is much controversy over the dropping of the bombs. It is relevant today. We must choose our leaders carefully.” By focusing on the story of one person, Sachiko, a habakusha who was shunned, Caren said she could explore how a child of war finds her way to peace.
“How does one get there?” she said. “How can this help our young people? I had to find the layers. What was happening in her life, the world, the war? I had to explore all the ways one person came to tell this story.” She paused and continued, “I don’t want this to be an apocalyptic story. I want it to be about a child, a story of hope. ”
One of my questions for Caren related to the name of this blog, “The Joy of Writing.” “Since I call my blog “The Joy of Writing,” what have been the joys (or not) of writing this book?” I wondered. Our time together ran out before we could talk about my question, but later Caren sent me this note:
It was a pleasure to meet you this afternoon to talk about SACHIKO. I never really answered your question about the joy of writing SACHIKO. The real joy of writing SACHIKO is connecting with others in friendship. I thoroughly enJOYed being with you this afternoon.
Then she added:
I forgot to say—now we have a child’s voice rising up through the three darkest holes of World War II. We have Germany’s Anne Frank and her diary. We have Hiroshima’s Sadako and her thousand paper cranes. And now we have Nagasaki’s Sachiko and her story. I feel in my bones if Anne Frank and Sadako had been allowed to grow to adulthood, they would have become wise peacemakers, like Sachiko, sharing love and hope with the world.
Thank you, Caren Stelson, for bringing Sachiko’s story, this beautiful book of forgiveness and peace, to us.
Sachiko Yasui and Caren Stelson at their first meeting. Nagasaki, 2010
Writing Idea: No matter what your writing project, try doing research or interviews to connect your story or subject to a larger historical perspective. Another idea: how would you write the story of a difficult time in your life (or another person’s life) for a child you know?
“When you grow up, remember to tell my story.” Sachiko Yasui
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
― Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches