In 2015, fourteen-year-old Christian mourns the death of his beloved great grandfather. It is only when he sees protesters outside the funeral calling GG Will a mass murderer does he find out that he is descended from one of the architects of the Manhattan Project.
In 1945, eleven-year-old Yuko wakes up wondering what present she will get for her birthday. As she gets dressed “a blinding flash – the light of a thousand thousand suns – tore apart the sky above the city. And Yuko’s world would never be the same”.
I loved the premise of this middle reader/young adult book, which was billed as “a compelling look at the horror of war through the eyes of those who lived it and those who haven’t… a well-researched look at the horror of war in Japan and its impact on innocent people”. Unfortunately, I was very disappointed with the execution. Firstly – this book is not young adult, but definitely children/middle reader. Secondly, it is having a total identity crisis. It clearly wants to be a book that raises empathy and understanding about the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan – but this is very much an American book, about American teenagers having American feelings.
Christian’s story has pointless subplots – football games, a girl he fancies who isn’t his girlfriend, a big fat female school bully, a best friend who seems to exist solely so we can be told he is deaf every single time he appears and so that he can send an email in the final quarter of the book. The school trip to Japan could have been given more page time as it was more relevant than a football game which doesn’t hence either plot or character development. At one point Christian states that he couldn’t imagine the millions dead in the Holocaust as it was too vast, but he could imagine Anne Frank and her family dying and feel sad about this. This book is quite polemic about doing the same for the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it doesn’t succeed. We care about Anne Frank when we read her diary because we come to know her. She is a real, rounded, person. Yuko’s flashbacks are infrequent and only ever cast her as the victim. She is defined by the bomb, by her injuries, by her lifetime of pain. There are three pages where she exists as an individual character prior to the bomb, and all she does is wake up and get dressed… this is not how empathy is built. Yuko is used as a foil for Christian’s feelings about his grandfather, she is never given her own agency.
Anyone hoping that this book will bring about self-reflection; a breaking down of feelings of ‘otherness’ in favour of recognition of a shared humanity; and a willingness to be part of a world where atrocities aren’t repeated in the young person they purchase it for are going to be disappointed. Those of us who first encountered the Holocaust through The Diary of Anne Frank, or the beautiful Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, might well want something in a similar vein to exist about the horrors of war, and the impact of individual actions for good or evil, about the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan. This is not that book. If you are happy with a book whose central message seems ‘terrible things happen during war, people have to follow orders, hey don’t take it personally, and don’t be thinking you can do anything to fix the present just apologise for the past’ then yes, this might be for you. Seriously – at least three characters literally say to Chris “people have to follow orders in war”, “everyone does terrible things during war”. Have to also point out there’s also some ghostly appearances (ACTUAL GHOSTS) crowbarred into the last few chapters, because why not. It’s relatively pacey, although a lot of the subplots are totally unnecessary, but morally hollow. Disappointing.
And Then the Sky Exploded is published by Dundurn Press, and will be available from good bookshops on 15th October. I received a copy of this book in return for an impartial review.