Book Review of "The Last Cherry Blossom"
Personal. Poignant. Powerful.
“The Last Cherry Blossom” by Kathleen Burkinshaw is a historical fiction loosely based on her mother’s firsthand experience as a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Through the eyes of 12-year old Yuriko, readers experience the everyday life of a Japanese family during the final year of WWII, and witness their struggles and challenges as they come to terms with the war and its devastating consequences.
It is certainly not an easy read, as the topic of war and atomic bombing weighs heavily on my (or any reader’s) heart and mind. It will take the readers on an emotional journey to face a very dark and broken phase in our human history and ponder how we could stop that from happening again. What makes this book particularly compelling is not only the depiction of the tragic loss, chaos and destruction, but also the portrayal of Yuriko’s efforts to rise from ashes, cope with her injuries and rebuild her life with hope, resilience and determination.
In addition to a major storyline of the bombing and its aftermath, this book also has a subplot about Yuriko’s family secret. Kathleen uses her superb storytelling skills to weave the two storylines seamlessly in the novel. That extra layer of warmth, love and friendship is like a cherry blossom, which adds a ray of brightness and a touch of softness to the story against the cold, dark background of war. It is indeed that enduring bonds of love that empower and enable us human beings to heal and rise above the tragedies and darkness. As a reader I definitely need and greatly appreciate that!
I really like how Kathleen presented snippets of real news articles in the chronological order at the beginning of each chapter. It serves multiple purposes such as grounding the story in a historical and cultural context; highlighting the role of government propaganda in shaping and manipulating public opinion; and constantly reminding the readers of the brutal reality of war and its toll on innocent civilians. Some of the epigraphs in “The Last Cherry Blossom” touch on the events leading up to the Japanese attacks against China and Pearl Harbor. To help the young readers fully understand the historical contexts and the immense damage wars can bring, I would suggest that students and teachers read this book along with other books related to the Pacific War, which includes the follows:
“Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th” by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen, a young adult book which gives a fictionalized account of the Pearl Harbor attack.
"Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II" by Iris Chang, which provides a comprehensive account of the atrocities committed by the Japanese army in Nanking, China (suitable for older young adult readers, as it contains graphic descriptions of violence).
"Under the Blood-Red Sun" by Graham Salisbury - This middle grade novel follows a young Japanese-American boy and his family's experiences during World War II, including their forced relocation to an internment camp in the United States.
I will definitely give this book a second (and more) reading to fully appreciate its power. I have, and will continue to recommend this book to school teachers and young adult readers. May the message of “The Last Cherry Blossom” continually shine like the flame of peace at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, until our planet is war and nuclear bomb free!