Book Review – Hiroshima by John Hersey

Originally published in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946, “Hiroshima” was written as a long pseudo-article by John Hersey, a pioneer of a new kind of journalism that utilized the narrative style of typical fiction novels. For that particular issue, The New Yorker ran the article in its entirety, taking up almost the entire print space. It was a unique feature at the time, as magazines rarely print only one single piece, but the subject matter was substantial enough to justify its space.

What I read was the book edition that included the follow-up nearly forty years later, and I had picked it up after reading something about it for the first time on reddit, and it sounded interesting. Though this book is different from what is usually reviewed here on gamobo, we will still be looking at the three traditional elements of storytelling (albeit interpreted differently): plot, characters, and narrative.

A flash, and then nothing.
A flash, and then nothing.

Plot

This story is based on real events. An atomic bomb was dropped on the civilian city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Tens of thousands of people died instantly, vaporized in the initial blast, with no bodies or even ashes to bury afterward, and many more would died later from burns and radiation sickness.

“Hiroshima” tells the story of six survivors and what they remember on the day it happened. Many of the stories followed the same pattern: they saw a bright flash, and then everything around them was in ruins. It is impossible to get a more personal and intimate perspective on what the bomb did that day. The vivid recollections of the survivors drive home the horror of war on a grand scale, and the tragedy of loss on the individual scale.

People lost their homes, their loved ones, they saw their neighbours dying, either burned alive or buried alive, children lost parents, and parents lost children, and for many it wasn’t a quick death, but a slow and agonizing release into the next life. Despite all this, the book is not political or preachy in any way, but we will get to that when we examine the narrative.

Furthermore, the book does not end on its tragic note. After the initial bombing, much of the story tells of how the citizens pulled together to survive and help each other. Perhaps there is something poetic here that tells of how the worst of humanity is needed to bring out its best, but this story definitely makes a point of showcasing human tenacity, resourcefulness, and perseverance.

Characters

Forming the narrative are a priest, a pastor, a doctor, a surgeon, a clerk, and a widow. Through these various persons we get different accounts of the blast as it happened, as they were in different places and different situations at the time. All of them embody the Japanese spirit of discipline, respect, and cooperation.

The account I found myself attached to the most was that of Mrs. Nakamura, a single mother of three. She was, if you will, the most “normal” of the group, just an average person who was living in her home with no direct connection to the war, and yet her life was shattered merely because she had the misfortune of living in Hiroshima.

The best part of this book is how every single one of these characters grew stronger out of the experience in their own unique way. This is a story of endurance, survival, and ultimately growth. Though the context was extraordinary, one cannot help but be inspired by these individual tales that make up a sum of Hiroshima and war survivors everywhere.

A blight upon the Earth, and human history.
A blight upon the Earth, and human history.

Narrative

The greatest accomplishment of John Hersey was the exposure at the personal level of this tragic incident. It is one thing to read or hear a news report, and another thing to hear it from the people directly involved.

Hersey didn’t set out to denounce the use of nuclear weapons; he wasn’t working on some anti-war agenda. He only gave a voice to the survivors while remaining neutral himself, allowing the reader to form their own impressions. This objective journalism is combined with a superb storytelling prose, coming together in a brief and engaging narrative. This is a book of facts, but painted in a purely human voice, effectively giving us a window into what it was like, for those who weren’t there and for those of us born afterwards.

The goal of journalism is not to entertain (a fact most major news corporations has forsaken), but to tell us what happened and why. “Hiroshima” does this while at the same time showing us why we should care. You can talk about the horror and waste of war all you want, but it probably won’t be as effective as hearing about a doctor going thirty six hours straight wiping, daubing, winding, repeat, or how a pastor continued to fetch water from a nearby river, only to find everyone in the park dead the morning after.

In Conclusion…

This isn’t historical fiction or fantasy, it’s historical fact. Nonetheless, I still recommend it on the basis that the book functions like a novel, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, as well as a steady and articulate third person omniscient narrator.

Personally, I was most affected just reading about the moments immediately after the blast. It was the smallest and simplest details that made my eyes water, and it’s impossible to describe why or how. Just read the book, and I think you’ll understand. In the spirit of Mr. Hersey’s accomplishment, I will not say anything political or anti-war here. If anything, this novel is about hope for the future, and is a strong argument for how tomorrow is always a brand new day.

This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.

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