As a teacher, (and author of Under Siege!) I find books to be a great source of information and an intimate connection to a subject. The subject of historical fiction is one dear to my heart. In a previous Mixed-Up Files post, I talked about using historical fiction in the classroom and how it brings life to an era long-ago. The very nature of historical fiction opens doors for discussion and understanding.
When students study history, we want them to understand the big concept, not just facts and dates. We want them to see the humanity and feel the emotion that was part of an event.
In my interview with author Kathleen Burkinshaw, author of The Last Cherry Blossom, we transport back in time to Hiroshima where we experience the elements of humanity and emotion through the eyes of a Japanese girl.
Please tell us about The Last Cherry Blossom and how you came to write it?
When my daughter was in seventh grade, she came home from school very upset. They were wrapping up WWII in their history class, and she had overheard some students talking about the ‘cool’ mushroom cloud picture. She asked me if I could visit her class and talk about the people under those famous mushroom clouds, people like her Grandma.
I had never discussed my mother’s life in Hiroshima during WWII. My mother was a very private person and she also didn’t want attention drawn to herself. But after my daughter’s request she gave me her consent. She bravely shared more memories of the most horrific day of her life. Memories that she had locked away in her heart because they had been too painful to discuss.
The main reason, my mother agreed (aside from the fact her granddaughter asked her), was that she knew students in seventh grade would be around the same age she was when the bomb dropped. She was 12-years-old. She hoped that students could relate to her story and by sharing her experience, these future voters would realize that the use of nuclear weapons against any country or people, for any reason, should never be repeated.
I received requests to visit other schools the following year. I began to write about my mom and August 6th after teachers requested a book to complement their curriculum.
I told my mom about this request. Later that week, she sent me a copy of her most treasured photo from her childhood. It is the one of her and her Papa (which I’m so grateful that Sky Pony placed it in my Afterword). When I looked at the photo which I remembered from my childhood because it always had a place of honor in our home; I realized there was more to her life than just war and death, she had loving memories as well.
That’s when I knew I needed to start the book months before the bomb. I wanted to show the culture, the mindset, and the daily life in Japan during the war. The main character, Yuriko is trying to figure things out in her own life, dealing with family issues, school, and then dealing with heartbreak. Yet, she finds strength she never thought she had that leads her to a new hopeful beginning. I intended to give the reader the view of the last year of WWII through the eyes of a 12-year-old Japanese girl-something that has not been done before.
How is Hiroshima’s history present in the story?
I used information that my mother gave me about her childhood as well as researching about Hiroshima and Japan during the war. (This was not an easy feat to find information written in English). The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum website had some great information.
My family and I visited Hiroshima for the first time in July 2015. Sadly, we went to honor my mom at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims. My mom passed away in January of 2015(but she did see the publishing contract and read one of my drafts). I met with some librarians at the Memorial Hall and learned that my mom lived less than two miles away from the epicenter! She had described it as a lot further away, so it was miraculous she survived and lived a healthy 82 years, (except her last few months)! I researched information by viewing the exhibits in the Hiroshima National Peace Museum. Standing on the same spot where my mother had witnessed so much horror and death, broke my heart and I cried through most of the museum. It just made me want to hug my 12-year-old mother, tell her she will have incredible strength, and find hope again.
Lastly, the fact that my mother’s Papa had his own newspaper company in Hiroshima, I could use the information that I had found to give a glimpse into the world and set the tone to the story by what everyday citizens were reading in newspapers and listening to on the radio. In this way, I could give the emotional impact that two paragraphs and a picture in a text book cannot do.
How much of the story is historical fact and how much of the story is fictional?
I would say that 75% of the book is fact either from my mother’s life or the history in Hiroshima and Japan during WWII that I gleaned from my research.
The timeline for events in the main character, Yuriko’s family life is probably the biggest section of fiction because I had to have it fit in the one-year time span. Some of the conversations and smaller side events were also fictionalized.
However, the description of August 6th is taken from my mom’s account of that day. So much so that when I read excerpts, I can’t help but tear up because I can still hear my mom telling me and crying as if it just happened all over again.
What will students learn from reading The Last Cherry Blossom that will help them relate to this time in history?
Students will learn that there is always another side. My hope is not only to convey the message that nuclear weapons should never be used again; but to also reveal that the children in Japan (like my mother) had the same love for family, fear of what could happen to them, and hopes for peace as the Allied children had. I want the students to walk away knowing that the ones we may think are our “enemy” are not always so different from ourselves. A message, I feel needs to be heard now more than ever.
A discussion guide is available on Kathleen Burkinshaw’s website: http://www.kathleenburkinshaw.com