Book Review by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: The Last Cherry Blossom
Author: Kathleen Burkinshaw
Publisher: Sky Pony Press, 2016
“Cherry blossoms are like life itself—so beautiful, yet so fragile that they bloom for only a short time.”
These lines, ethereal and poetic in intent, sum up in spirit the story of the young adult book, The Last Cherry Blossom. This book, authored by Kathleen Burkinshaw, seems to be impacting the world with its peacekeeping efforts as it is now a United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs Resource for Teachers and Students. Burkinshaw has recently spoken at the United Nations in New York City.
The Last Cherry Blossom has received much acclaim. It has been nominated for the NC School Library Media Association YA book award and 2019-2020 VSBA, 2018 & 2016 Scholastic WNDB Reading Club selection, and Finalist for NC Sir Walter Raleigh Fiction Award, 2018 Sakura Medal, Japan, and SCBWI Crystal Kite Award (southeast region).
The narrative recreates a beautiful world that was ruined by the nuclear bomb blast in Hiroshima on August 6th 1945. Burkinshaw herself is the daughter of a survivor — a hibakusha. The Last Cherry Blossom brings home to the readers the loss, the pain and the suffering that a nuclear war generates through generations. Kathleen Burkinshaw herself suffers a neurological disorder due to her mother’s exposure to the atom bomb.
The book starts with Yuriko in school and twirls through an interesting life of a twelve-year-old girl. She discovers the man who brought her up was not her father but her grandfather — a powerful business magnate. And as she feels torn by her discovery, she finds relief in talking to her bosom friend, Machiko. So, what is extraordinary about this situation? Nothing — except the storyline of the novel is aimed to remove biases from people’s minds about the Japanese and captures the tenor of life in the pre-atom bombed Hiroshima. The author well brings out that the common people in Japan hated war and wanted to lead a normal life as did the children of allied forces, which she re-emphasised in a podcast recording for the United Nations this January. The UN has picked up this book to educate the newer generations unbesmirched by the trauma of the World Wars on the long-term disasters that such events can spin off.
John Ennis of the UN disarmament office said in an article in Japan Times: “The book’s powerful message raises awareness with the younger generation, which is especially pressing now that the hibakusha are getting older. The book provides a moving testament why nuclear weapons should never be used again and should be eliminated.”
The bomb blast explodes Yuriko’s life as she knew it while she talks to Machiko —
“The deafening hum of a low-flying plane drowned out Machiko’s reply. This time a siren sounded. The hair lifted on the back of my neck.
An ear-shattering popping noise.
An intense burst of white light.
The ground trembled and opened beneath us, as if to swallow us whole. Machiko and I clung to each other and screamed.
Darkness . . .”
That was the moment. And then she lost her friend forever.
The mushroom cloud under which she survived deprived her of her beloved papa, her friend and her life.
“The sky was no longer blue, but shades of purple, orange, and brown. In another time and in another place, I might have thought the color combination beautiful. But now it seemed ominous and deadly.”
Then came the suffering till Yuriko is united with her biological father who had secretly seen her swim in the koi pond as a child. A poignant scene is painted as Yuriko moves towards accepting her real father —
At the station, her biological father asked: “‘Did you enjoy your morning swims in your koi pond?’ ‘What kind of a question is that? Wait, how did you—?’ My heart skipped a beat. My stomach flip-flopped. The bow and the tipping of his hat. The morning swim. The man with sad eyes.
I moved closer to him to get a better look at his face. He smiled at me. His eyes no longer looked sad. As I gave him a quivering smile back, I heard the words of my papa echoing in my head: ‘The season changes when the last cherry blossom falls.’”
And hope is reiterated by the single cherry blossom that managed to bloom despite the atomic contamination in Hiroshima. The bloom helped young Yuriko recall her Papa’s earlier statement about the cherry blossom being like life itself —- fragile and evanescent and move forwards towards accepting her new father and new life.
In her ‘Afterword’, Burkinshaw tells us of her mother and concludes, saying, “Originally, scientists said nothing would grow again in Hiroshima soil for many years after the bomb was dropped. Yet, the cherry blossoms bloomed the following spring. The cherry blossoms endured much like the spirit of the people—like my mother—who were affected by the bombing of Hiroshima.”
The Last Cherry Blossom gains titular significance as an emblem of hope for rejuvenating life and a future which Burkinshaw’s mother uncovered over the years.
The most unique thing about Burkinshaw’s telling is she builds up the before and after of the bomb blast — the majority of her book is set before the blast and a lesser part after, thus making the book more dramatic. The beauty, calmness and the similarities in the Japanese commoner’s thought process is built up to be broken by that single catalytic moment, “an intense burst of white light”, to create empathy in the hearts of the reader.
Other non-fiction that had been written many years ago, like Hiroshima by the Pulitzer prize-winning John Hersey (1946) makes one shudder at the horror of the impact — he informs his narrative through six victims’ stories. While this book is more journalistic, Kathleen Burkinshaw’s narrative is more readable — especially for impressionable young adults.
It is no wonder that her book is being widely publicised by the United Nations and the media as a part of their peacekeeping effort.
Said author Burkinshaw in an earlier interview with Kyodo News: “I am going to do my small part and I am going to keep talking about her story and talking to students about The Last Cherry Blossom so that we will have no more Hiroshimas and Nagasakis.”
Dear Reader, Please Support Kitaab!
Help promote Asian writing and writers. Become a Donor today!