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Book Review: "Hiroshima" by John Hersey

Atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan - August 6, 1945
Atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan - August 6, 1945 | Source

Introduction

It is often said that history repeats itself; thus, the importance of history classes and education about the past. There are certain things, like wars, that we do not wish to see happen again in our world.

One such event was the first (and last to this day) atom bombs, which were used during World War II on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States sought to end the war with one devastating attack in return; we were successful.

Not knowing the true extent of the damage that the nuclear bombs would cause, they were dropped. And since, books and memoirs and journals and history texts and more have been written, and photographs were taken, and research has been done, and movies have been made to educate people of it’s destructive power so that in this case, history will never repeat itself.

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Fact:

From a population of 250,000, approximately 100,000 Japanese citizens were killed by the atomic bomb and another 100,000 injured or affected by radiation poisoning.

Brief Plot Overview

Hersey’s novel begins on August 6th, 1945, during World War II, when the city of Hiroshima in Japan was bombed by American troops. This was, however, no ordinary bomb; as Japanese doctors and victims slowly discovered, it was an atom bomb that left victims with strange injuries and symptoms.

“About a week after the bomb dropped, a vague, incomprehensible rumor reached Hiroshima— that the city had been destroyed by the energy released when atoms were somehow split in two” (Hersey 62).

It shocked the Japanese city with incredibly devastating and widespread effects; from a population of 250,000, over 100,000 people were killed and 100,000 more injured or affected by radiation poisoning.

The first effects of the bomb are immediate deaths, severe injuries, and fires all across the city. Mr. Tanimoto and Father Kleinsorge, both generally uninjured, aid their neighbors, friends, family, and strangers alike, including Mrs. Nakamura and her children.

Professional help is slow coming and many die within the first few days and weeks of the bombing. Most doctors in Hiroshima were killed or too injured to work for a period of time, like Dr. Fujii, who tends to his own health for weeks before resuming work as a physician.

Miss Sasaki and Dr. Sasaki (not related, but interested that they have the same surname), who was one of the few unharmed doctors, cross paths weeks after the explosion, when the young woman is brought to the hospital where he is tirelessly working due to her fractured and very infected leg.

In the later effects of the bomb, doctors were stumped by the strange and unstable symptoms of radiation sickness. Father Kleinsorge suffers from wounds that cannot heal and a baffling white blood cell count that continues to rise and fall. Mrs. Nakamura’s hair falls out in handfuls, like many others.

After many years, most of the six survivors lead comfortable lives. Two however, Father Kleinsorge and Dr. Fujii, die unexpectedly from radiation complications.

The aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during WWII.
The aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during WWII. | Source

Intentions for the Novel

John Hersey, working as a reporter for The New Yorker, traveled to Hiroshima himself the summer after the bomb had been dropped. There he spent three weeks researching, investigating, and interviewing survivors.

When Hiroshima was published in The New Yorker in 1946, the 31,000-word article took the entire magazine. Its intention, by both Hersey and the editors of the magazine, was to provide an eye-opening account of the devastation caused by the bomb the previous summer.

Most Americans were unaware of the details following the bombing; by providing the stories of these six survivors, Hersey had the intention of educating the public about the severity of the attack, which ties back into the idea of repetition in history. As a journalist, Hersey sought to educate the American public about the event so that in the future, more consideration may be taken before such a rash decision, like the use of a nuclear weapon on a civilian city, is made.

John Hersey, 1952
John Hersey, 1952 | Source

Fact:

The 6 people followed in the novel were real people affected by the bombing. Hersey interviewed them and used elements of their real stories in his book.

Elements of Journalism

Hersey’s work in Hiroshima is qualified under the categories of truth, loyalty to citizens, and verification within journalistic standards; he spent time, personally, in Japan researching and interviewing eyewitnesses. The six victims covered in the book are real people, and Hersey tells their true stories.

Another important element of journalism, which I believe applies greatly to Hiroshima, is to strive to make significant information interesting and relevant. The way in which Hersey forms this journalistic pursuit into a fictional-type story makes the information much more appealing to the general public. It also personalizes it; by creating such a detailed account of the six people, the reader is given an insight into their lives. It humanizes them and makes evoking sympathy from the audience much easier.

Writing Style

Author John Hersey writes in a unique style in this book. In covering six different survivors’ stories, he transitions between characters and jumps from place to place often. It is done smoothly, however, which shows how although the lives of these people are very different, the tragedy of the atom bomb diminished their lives to simple survival, and made their stories much more similar and comparable.

His style is also not typical of journalism; it seems more like a fiction novel than a journalistic account. In this fiction-type style, the characters are easier to relate to. Hersey conveys a sense of pain and helplessness in his writing:

“Thousands of people had nobody to help them. Miss Sasaki was one of them. Abandoned and helpless . . . beside the woman who had lost a breast and the man whose burned face was scarcely a face anymore, she suffered awfully that night from the pain in her broken leg” (Hersey 48).

Hiroshima by John Hersey
Hiroshima by John Hersey | Source

Recommendation

Hiroshima was, as I’m sure Hersey hoped, an eye-opening read. Hersey’s style provided for not only an interesting story, but also a very personalized, journalistic view of the event and its aftermath. I’d strongly recommend the book to others; on the front cover, the Saturday Review of Literature is quoted as saying, “Everyone able to read should read it,” and I agree. If we do not wish to see such death, devastation, and despair again, in our “civilized” world, we need accounts like this to educate us.

© 2014 Niki Hale

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