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Remembering the Bomb

Today is the 60th anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, so it seems an apt time to offer this review of a book that I read only very recently, and purely by coincidence.

Very shortly after the bomb was dropped, journalist (and later, novelist) John Hersey went to Hiroshima on a commission from The New Yorker and spoke in depth with some of the survivors about their own experiences of that awful day and its aftermath. When he returned to the States, he wrote a 31,000-word article that was published in the August 31, 1946 edition of The New Yorker; no other articles and no cartoons appeared in that issue. (Steve Rothman has written an excellent paper on the effects of the publication of that article.) Soon afterwards, the article was republished as the book, Hiroshima. Forty years later, Hersey returned to Japan and spoke again with those of the same survivors who were still living. The material from that second visit was published as an added chapter in a new edition of the book.

The great strength and impact of this book comes from its completely personal approach. Hersey documents the event entirely through the eyes of his six survivor informants: a personnel clerk, a tailor's widow, two doctors, a German Jesuit priest, and a Methodist pastor. From their awakenings on the fateful day, through their survival of the blast itself, and into their experiences of the following days and weeks, this is always a deeply personal story. We are never given the chance to stand aloof from the human side of this event, considering the greater political or military motivations, or amazed by tidy statistics about kilo-tonnage or blast radius. Hersey always pulls us back down into these people's confusion, suffering, and quiet heroism. It was a very powerful document when it appeared in 1946, the first look most Americans had then at the very local impact of the bomb, and it retains its ability to move us to this day.

I picked up my copy of Hiroshima by happenstance, at a used book store in Seattle. If you live near me, I'd be happy to loan it to you; if not, I urge you to pick up a copy or borrow it from your library. It's an important story for all of us, never to be forgotten.