Hiroshima by John Hersey

EE8E4EB7-0AB7-45E2-95C2-99D93621B76BI have owned my copy of this book for over a decade and never picked it up. It wasn’t until I was sitting in Book Soup for a book event and looked over and saw it sitting there that I decided I should pick it up. I am so glad I did. If you’re not familiar with this classic work of nonfiction, here is more information for you.

On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atom bomb ever dropped on a city. This book, John Hersey’s journalistic masterpiece, tells what happened on that day. Told through the memories of survivors, this timeless, powerful and compassionate document has become a classic “that stirs the conscience of humanity” (The New York Times).

Almost four decades after the original publication of this celebrated book, John Hersey went back to Hiroshima in search of the people whose stories he had told.  His account of what he discovered about them is now the eloquent and moving final chapter of Hiroshima.

One of the most horrific acts of war, and one of the hardest to justify, is the killing of civilians. The dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the stories that rose from the ashes, show us why. Hiroshima contains those stories. This book is haunting and powerful and allows the reader a glimpse into what it was like to live through August 6, 1945.

Hersey does little with language, he is direct with his words. There is no sense that this book was written in 1946, nothing that dates Hersey, except of course the subject matter. This isn’t a book full of eloquent prose, or even historical context. This is very much the story of six people who somehow continued to live even after the bomb fell. Hersey talks about his subjects with a distance that allows the reader to imagine themselves in Hiroshima, 1945. I found myself looking up from the page and just shaking my head wondering about the realty of such an atrocity, and also the unimaginable shock and horror that these people witnessed.

Hiroshima does a wonderful job of zeroing in on one perspective, that of the survivors, and erases almost all other chatter that surrounds the use of the atomic bomb. Hersey does not allow for a debate on weather or not it should have been dropped, who is to blame, what options were weighed, etc. He simply shares the stories of those who survived, if the act was right or wrong does not matter. The book is a reckoning of lived experience, not of tactical warfare. It is a brilliant stroke to isolate the intellectual conversations around the atom bomb from the very real effects its usage had on human lives. There is no rationalizing the bomb when you hear people share the things they’ve witnessed.

In the 1980’s Hersey goes back to Hiroshima and follows up with his six main characters. What he finds out about their lives in the 40 years since the bombing makes up the Afterward of Hiroshima .  This was the section of the book I felt the least connected to. While I was grateful to know what happened to everyone, Hersey seemed to have changed from the man who wrote the initial part of the book. His writing style and point of view were different (as I have to assume anyone would be after living an additional 40 years). He did not have the economy of language that I loved so much in the first part of the book. It was a subtle shift, but one that distracted me.

I am grateful that this book exists and it has inspired me to want to read more on the subject (I plan to read both Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath by Paul Ham and Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb by Ronald Takaki). I want to read more about the history of the bombs, how America was able to justify dropping them, and more of the arguments around nuclear warfare. I am glad that my introduction to Hiroshima came from Hiroshima, and started with the stories of those who were bombed, those who suffered the greatest cost. I will carry their voices with me as I continue to learn and understand why this happened.

This book is suitable for all people.  It is appropriate for teenagers learning about World War II for the first time, and adults of any age. It is short and easy to understand. There are a few graphic descriptions of injuries, and while they are hard to read, they are important to fully comprehend the magnitude of this act.

If you do read this book, or you have read this book, please share your thoughts in the comments. I would also appreciate any and all suggestions for other books on this topic.

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (March 4, 1989)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Hiroshima on Amazon

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