Nagasaki

I recently finished reading Susan Southard’s history Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War. I found the book while browsing non-fiction titles available from my local library, and decided to check it out since I found myself on something of a “losing streak” with fiction titles up to this point in 2024. Back in late-January / early-February, I tried reading Gabriel Krauze’s novel, Who They Was — but I ultimately abandoned it about a quarter of the way into the book because I just couldn’t acclimate to the Black British street dialect. I tried reading Frank O’Connor’s Collected Stories in the lead-up to Saint Patrick’s Day — and there were a couple of lovely short stories at the front end of the book — but the book just failed to gain any traction after the fourth or fifth story and after the end of the Irish holiday. So, that was when I decided to try a more narrative style of non-fiction with this history about the end of the Second World War and its aftermath. But even at that, I almost stalled out about a third of the way into the book. Fortunately, though, I’ve had some more space to sit and read this weekend allowing me to power through the second half of the book right before it was due to be returned to the library. And I’m really glad that I was able to finish this one.

This weekend’s experience makes me think that my “losing streak” was more about me than it was about the books. My attention has been divided over the course of a busy semester of work and family life. I haven’t given myself many opportunities to slow down and sink into good stories. So, I’m extra-glad that I got the chance to do that at last. And even though Nagasaki is basically synonymous with nuclear devastation, I found this book to be a remarkably hopeful reflection.

The narrative functions largely around the stories of five young people who lived through the bombing of Nagasaki (Japan) in August of 1945. They were too young to serve in the military at the time, but they were old enough to hold factory jobs and manage family responsibilities in the waning days of the Second World War — when Japan was fiercely resisting American military advances into its homeland. The book does a good job of sketching out the way that life in Nagasaki was hard before it received the world’s largest and latest assault from an atomic bomb. But even in the midst of that hardship, people were finding a way to carry on with life.

And then came the bomb.

To be honest, I decided to read this book because I was curious to know what actually happened in the explosion and immediate aftermath of the atomic bomb. I grew up during the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear war was palpable. And I think that a few of the stories from last summer’s reading of Douglas Coupland’s masterpiece Life After God reminded me of the way that my generation regularly hypothesized about nuclear holocaust because it was an imminent threat. Still, as the author of Nagasaki points out, there was nothing hypothetical about nuclear war. The city of Nagasaki (and its near-predecessor Hiroshima) actually experienced nuclear war and its aftermath. And the book provided plenty of the details regarding the horrors of detonation and radiation. I won’t go into many of those details here, but the five young people tracked through this history spent years — even decades — in physical and psychological agony because of their experiences with the bomb.

And after I finished reading about the immediate aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki, I almost gave up on the book. I almost continued my “losing streak.” Because I’d gotten what I came for. I got my (horrifying) glimpse of nuclear holocaust, and I honestly couldn’t understand why there was still two-thirds of the book left to read. Surely, the last third couldn’t all be end notes, could it?!?

I kept reading because I’m stubborn, because I couldn’t find anything more interesting to read, and because I honestly thought that the end notes were a sizeable chunk of the total page count (without ever actually checking to see for myself). I kept chipping away at the middle chapters. And then, with some extra time over the weekend, I got my “second wind” and sailed through the last part of the book. And I’m honestly very glad that I did. Much of the most powerful stuff in the book came towards the end: powerful lessons in forgiveness and hope and healing. The author continued to track the lives of those five young people until they became old people. And despite the challenges of getting bombed by a nuclear weapon, they lived well into the 21st Century. Along the way, they learned about practicing vulnerability. They asked for forgiveness and granted forgiveness to others. They committed themselves to causes of peace.

I actually found their example to be extremely envisioning for my own life.

I hope that none of the rest of us ever have to live through nuclear war (much like the author and the subjects of her book). Still, I think there’s a lot to learn from Nagasaki, and I’d recommend this book to anyone who appreciates history, to anyone who carries the scars of traumatic events from early life, and to anyone who wishes to be envisioned for forgiveness and hope and healing.

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