Hiroshima novel a hit with students on both sides of the Pacific Hiroshima novel a hit with students on both sides of the Pacific

Hiroshima novel a hit with students on both sides of the Pacific

    NHK General Bureau for America
    For Kathleen Burkinshaw, the Second World War is more than just a series of military victories and defeats. It’s also a multigenerational family story that she's determined to tell the world.

    The North Carolina resident is the author of “The Last Cherry Blossom,” a children's novel about her mother's experiences as a 12-year-old girl in Hiroshima around the time the atomic bomb was dropped.

    Kathleen Burkinshaw, author of "The Last Cherry Blossom"

    The story begins as a simple coming-of-age tale, but abruptly turns into a tragedy as the beloved family patriarch dies in the blast. The young heroine struggles to come to grips with her new reality, and to reconcile the person she was before the bomb with the person she must become in its aftermath.

    Burkinshaw's mother Toshiko Ishikawa Hilliker (left) and her family

    As the daughter of a Japanese woman and an American soldier who served in World War II, Burkinshaw experienced a similar struggle in reconciling different views of the atomic bomb held within her own family.

    "My father was a little concerned when I started writing the book because he didn’t know what people might say," says Burkinshaw. "He was concerned that because it was America that had dropped the bomb, people would be against me, or against the book."

    She says she tried to sidestep these political sensitivities by telling her story from the perspective of a child.

    "I realized I had to write it through the lens of the 12-year-old child in Japan, so that I wouldn't be putting a white lens on it, an American lens on it," she said. “I would simply show what life was like.”

    Kathleen Burkinshaw gives a speech at a junior high school in North Carolina.

    And it worked. Burkinshaw's message has been a hit with students in both the US and Japan, and she has been invited to speak at schools in Hiroshima and in several American states. Her passionate style of storytelling, as well as her vulnerable and forthright manner of speech, elicit candid responses from her young readers.

    "I thought the book was great," said Noah Santos, a 7th-grader from North Carolina. "I think really building up the characters and seeing what life was like was very good. Normally you just hear about the war, but hearing about the day-to-day life was great."

    Shiori Hirata, a student at the Hiroshima International School, had a similar opinion. "Before reading the book, I had no particular feelings about the war,” she said. “After reading the book, I wanted to extend peace.”

    Teachers in both Japan and the US have praised Burkinshaw’s child-focused narrative.

    "I start with an American perspective on pretty much everything I teach, because it’s something my students can latch onto," Dorothy Pagan, Noah’s social studies teacher, said. “But then you introduce another side of the story, and students start to question who is right and who is wrong.”

    Burkinshaw's mother and daughter

    While Burkinshaw is grateful for the international success of “The Last Cherry Blossom,” the events that inspired the book have taken a physical toll. The author suffers from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a nerve disorder that her doctors believe is caused by
    her mother’s exposure to radiation during the Hiroshima fallout.

    While the legacy of the bomb is painful both physically and emotionally for the Burkinshaw family, it has also inspired curiosity and connection through the generations. In fact, the idea for the book was sparked by questions from Burkinshaw’s daughter, Sara, who wanted her grandmother’s story included as part of her 7th-grade instruction on World War II.

    “When we learned about the bomb, my classmates just thought the mushroom cloud was really cool,” she said. “I wanted them to know that there was more to it than that. My grandmother was under that cloud.”