Recommended for ages 10-14
Narrated in the first person by 12 year-old Yuriko, The Last Cherry Blossom tells the story of a family living in Hiroshima during the last year of World War II. Yuriko lives with her widowed father, her aunt Kimiko, and obnoxious 5 year-old cousin, Genji. She and her best friend Machiko stealthily listen to American Jazz records; Machiko’s father got rid of (almost) all of their records because the government wants to be rid of any American influence. She’s used to the air raid drills, even if they annoy her, but when her neighbor is called to fight for Japan, and then Machiko is called to leave school to work at the factory, Yuriko starts feeling the impact of war. She hears whispers from the neighborhood – and her father does run a newspaper – that Japan is not faring as well as the radio and newspapers would have you believe. When the true horror of war is brought to Yuriko’s door, we see, through her eyes, the devastation that the bombing of Hiroshima brought.
The Last Cherry Blossom is powerful. Even as an account of a family’s life during World War II, it’s a strong book, because it shows readers – in parallels we can make today – that the “enemy” isn’t an entire country; an entire group of people. The enemy were children teasing one another, rolling their eyes at annoying aunts and cousins, worried about their parents remarrying, and secretly listening to music that their parents may not approve of. The enemy loved eating sweet treats and held celebrations and cried when they lost people they loved in war, just like we did. Inspired by the author’s mother’s own life living as a child in Hiroshima, Ms. Burkinshaw writes so beautifully, yet packs a literary gut-punch that left me biting back tears.
There has been some strong World War II realistic/historical fiction for middle grade in the last couple of years, for which I am grateful. I’m very happy to see fiction that explores life outside the U.S. during World War II: we need perspective; reminders to look outside ourselves; to see the cost that war demands on everyone.
An author afterword tells readers about the author’s mother, and how her daughter’s class visits eventually led to the book being written. There’s also a bibliography, notes on the use of honorifics in the story, a glossary, and statistics about Hiroshima, complete with sources.
This is a good add to historical and realistic fiction collections. Booktalk with Sandy Brehl’s World War II books, taking place in Norway under the Nazi occupation; Sharon McKay’s End of the Line, taking place in Amsterdam, and most closely related to Burkinshaw’s work, Sadako and the Thousand Cranes (and please have tissues available).