Title: Hiroshima (1946)
Author: John Hersey
Synopsis and history
As one of the first Western Journalists to arrive in Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb, John Hersey was soon commissioned to write a feature. As a war correspondent, Hersey already wrote for Life magazine and The New Yorker. His masterpiece, initially published in a long essay format, became an instant success, whereby changing the American perspective of the tragedy.
…”they were the objects of the first great experiment in the use of atomic power, which (as the voices on the short-wave shouted) no country except the United States, with its industrial know-how, it’s willingness to throw two billion gold dollars into an important wartime gamble, could possibly have developed.”
This was one of the first works to embody the ‘New Journalism’ emerging in the mid-twentieth century, as Hersey combines non-fiction with storytelling type prose. Following the experience of six survivors and how their lives intertwined with each other, Hersey demonstrates how techniques of fiction writing can be adapted to suit non-fiction purposes. It is told as a story, but the content is so poignant and revealingly told, there is no escaping the reality.
During the end of the Second World War, the US released nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. Estimates for the death toll vary but are in the region of 129,000-226,000. Many died instantly, but many would suffer in the years after from emerging cancers, infertility problems, cataracts, and the impact of keloid scaring.
A pacific war had been going on between Japan and its allies and the US decided to release the atomic bomb on Hiroshima to force Japan into surrender. The dropping of the first ever nuclear weapon, instantly killed 70,000 and the city was destroyed. The impact would go on for decades to come.
The book focuses on the experiences of six people who lived through Hiroshima. It features two doctors, a Protestant minister, a widowed seamstress, a female factory worker and a German Catholic priest. The structure of the book is chronological and follows the unfolding of the events, each told through a different perspective. Hersey constantly jumps back and forth between characters, but demonstrates how their lives were connected in the final section. Each section, containing a different perspective on the experience, adds another dimension to the horrific imapct of the bomb.
It is hard to coherently review a book like this, as I feel like no number of words or thoughts could process this reading experience.
I remember first learning about Hiroshima when I was in secondary school, I was in an R.E (religious education) lesson, and we were exploring the morality behind humans having the powers of destruction. I remember my teacher telling us, humans are often the creators of their own destruction, he wasn’t wrong. As someone who didn’t live through this, it can be hard to understand the fear, anxiety and astonishment behind these events. But this book offers a valuable insight into the lived experience of survivors and I now feel more educated.
The use of different narrators who all experienced the same event was interesting. At first I found this confusing and slightly hard to follow, but then reading on, I realised that it all connected, as the people featured all knew each other in different ways. I think having a multitude of different perspectives is essential when re-telling an experience like this. As after all, historical events are experienced differently by the individuals that lived through them, it would be reductive to write a book documenting the event through the eyes of just one or two survivors.
Hersey importantly doesn’t shy away from describing the sheer brutality of the impacts of the bomb on the people that lived in the city. He describes the health implications gruesomely, but this is essential, in order to fully comprehend the impact. Some descriptions were enough to make my stomach churn, but then reality kicks in when you remember this actually happened to people, through no fault of their own. Hiroshima impacted the ordinary civilians, and it is so important that their experience is put to the forefront.
Hersey also doesn’t completely focus on just the experience of the bomb, he details the immediate aftermath and then the long term impacts. This allows the long term impact to be protruded into the reader’s understanding and reveals the complete picture of this tragedy.
Despite its very immediate impact, the after affects were something individuals had to live with for the rest of their lives. Not just physically, but mentally. Each survivor featured, had to try and re-build their lives after such a horrific experience. What is shown, is that although they were lucky enough to survive, they could not escape the health implications nor the mental strain of living through such a bleak moment in history. Life went on, but they could never forget.
I was hesitant to read this book, as I like to read to escape reality. But nonetheless, I am very glad I read this. Like most people, I only ever comprehended Hiroshima in terms of the figures and facts, and as a historical event, but this book and the perspectives it provides, really hones in on the humanness of tragedy.
It is not a book to take lightly, but nonetheless an essential one. It is easy to read, once you get the hang of the alternative perspectives, and very enlightening. It is a hard read, but one that everyone should have a go at if they want to be more informed of the lived experiences that were the sheer horrors of Hiroshima.