August 6, 1945, is a date forever etched into the memories of those who live in Hiroshima. Today, it is marked by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony, where thousands of lanterns are set afloat along the Motoyasu River in memory of those who died in the devastating bombing of the city.
Soul Lanterns, a historical middle grade novel set in the 1970s, opens with Nozomi, a 12-year-old Japanese girl, at the annual lantern floating ceremony. After her family release lanterns into the water, we learn the stories of some of their loved ones who died as a result of the atomic bomb. But a mystery surrounds one of the lanterns—who is it for?—and an unknown woman who believes she may recognize Nozomi.
As the chapters unfold, Nozomi discovers more untold stories about the impact of the events of August 6 on her community. One in particular captures her attention: the story of her art teacher Mr. Yoshioka, who lost his fiancée in the blast. It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that Nozomi chooses to depict his experiences in her artwork for the fall culture festival. Its theme: “Hiroshima: Then and Now.”
“. . . there weren’t many kids who had heard firsthand accounts of the bomb from relatives or people in their neighborhoods . . .”
The culture festival provides Nozomi and her schoolmates with the impetus to approach those they know and ask them to share their stories. (And yes, Nozomi does summon up the courage to quiz her mother about the mysterious lantern and unknown woman.) Each account lends a deeply personal perspective to a tragedy that saw around 140,000 lives lost. Some of the details are harrowing: seven skulls are all that remain of a local schoolteacher and her students; a mother is confronted by the burnt, unrecognizable body of her son.
Soul Lanterns is a challenging read. There are multiple narrators, which may throw some readers off balance, especially if they read the book over an extended period (as I did first time around). Names—and there are many—may be unfamiliar and prove a stumbling block. The novel is also sprinkled with words in Japanese, such as nyushi hibaku, oshiruko and yukata, although these are italicized and their meaning can generally be gleaned from the context. However, these are but minor quibbles.
Overall, Soul Lanterns is an immensely valuable book and teaching and learning resource. Author Shaw Kuzki, a second-generation A-bomb survivor, has skillfully woven historical information and cultural detail into story. By doing so, she has created a richly authentic novel about a day that should be seared into our collective memory so that it may never happen again.
Written by Shaw Kuzki
Translated from the Japanese by Emily Balistrieri
Penguin Random House, 2021
Reviews: Kirkus, Asian Review of Books
Read an interview with translator Emily Balistrieri by Jackie Friedman Mighdoll here
You can buy a copy of Soul Lanterns here.
Laura Taylor is the founder of world children’s literature blog Planet Picture Book. She is a small business copywriter, NAATI-certified translator of French into English and member of AUSIT. When she is not writing, she is reading, and chasing after her two young children. She tweets regularly @plapibo and posts at www.planetpicturebook.com
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