Narrative History and “So What?”: Hiroshima by John Hersey

It began as a normal day in Hiroshima, till a blinding flash of light destroyed a city and killed thousands. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a singular moment in the history of warfare. Though armed conflict has, of course, changed and evolved in the 70 years since the end of WWII, nuclear weapons — and who does and doesn’t have them — still puts diplomats the world over on edge. John Hersey’s masterful narrative history Hiroshima illustrates why we care so much about nukes, even if another nuclear weapon is never detonated again.

Hersey never utters the word “non-proliferation,” nor does he make any moral or historical judgement. Hersey wields narrative instead of rhetoric to condemn nuclear warfare. Hiroshima follows six subjects before, during, and after the bombing. As they dig their way out of collapsed buildings, flee to parks and parade grounds, and watch their city engulfed in flame, we follow them. As they panic, survey their own injuries, cannot fathom what is happening to them, and watch others die, we follow them. One of Hersey’s subjects sees a mother clutch her dead baby in her arms for more than 24 hours after the infant expired. Another tries to help men and women whose skin is literally sloughing off their bodies. Through descriptive but forthright prose, Hersey illustrates the horrors and devastation of the city in the direct aftermath of the bomb.

In a final chapter, added to later editions of the book, Hersey follows up with his six subjects 30 years after the bombing. Some of them milked their status as survivors; others distanced themselves. Some became actively engaged in issues of war and peace; others distanced themselves from this too. Because Hersey’s subjects led different lives at the time of the bomb, their lives took them down different paths. Some found prosperity; others destitution. But all of them, every single one, suffered lasting health effects from the bomb’s radiation exposure, even as their city was resettled and rebuilt to its former size and importance.

Hersey’s book does have some odd quirks. Two of the six subjects are Christian ministers, a much larger proportion than in the Japanese population at the time. Perhaps Hersey thought these figures would be more relatable to his midcentury-American audience? It’s an odd choice, though it doesn’t really effect the larger argument. Additionally, the US is pretty clearly the antagonist of the piece, but Hersey largely avoids mentioning the US’s involvement. In the immediate aftermath, it was largely irrelevant to those on the ground. In the last chapter, Hersey does acknowledge the US’s self-serving attitude toward Japanese survivors (such as the center to study – but not treat – the long-term effects of radiation exposure). Here again perhaps Hersey had his American audience in mind and chose to tread lightly.

As teachers, we endeavor to make our subjects “real” for our students. History teachers take note: Hersey’s Hiroshima illustrates the human cost of nuclear war.

Up Next: Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Why? Goodbye, Columbus is my first foray into short stories and I’m reading Miss Jean Brodie with a friend (#bookcluboftwo).

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