Study Guide

Hiroshima

By John Hersey

Hiroshima Introduction

If you're scrolling through another list about "45 Kittens That Are Too Cute For Life" or "Seventeen Omelets That Want To Kill You" and you're feeling parched for the days of great journalism, fear not, brave Shmooper. Hiroshima will quench that thirst.

Yup, that's right—no fiction here; this is a true story of the Hiroshima bombings, as remembered by six individuals who were there that on that fateful day.

But how did this book come to be? What awesome, brave soul went to radiation-contaminated Hiroshima to get the scoop? You have John Hersey to thank for that: while working as a correspondent for The New Yorker, he traveled to Japan to interview survivors of the 1945 blast. The resulting article(s) were originally published in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946. Yup. Just a hair more than a year after the blast.

The editors thought that the stories Hersey had to tell were so important that they decided to devote the entire issue to Hersey's article. Soon after that, Hersey's account was published as a book.

Hersey's account follows six people who were in (or very near) Hiroshima on the day of the attack, reporting their memories of what happened leading up to and immediately following it. But Hersey didn't stop there, no sirree Bob.

Forty years after the bombing, Hersey went and got updates on each of the six people discussed in his original article, and the resulting article was also published in The New Yorker (and tacked on as a final chapter to the book editions). That, guys, is dedication that makes the makers of the 7 Up series almost look like lazybones.

You'll notice pretty quickly that the book's six subjects—Toshiko Sasaki, Dr. Masakazy Fuji; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, Hatsuyo Nakamura, and Dr. Terufumi Sasaki—are pretty different from one another and had widely different experiences on that day.

However, it's clear that all six had their lives utterly and entirely changed forever at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, and Hersey masterfully—and without being melodramatic—plumbs the depths of how these very real people experienced a trauma as dramatic as any fictional event.

What is Hiroshima About and Why Should I Care?

You may have noticed that a lot of movies out there use intersecting plot lines—for example, Love Actually, Pulp Fiction, Magnolia, Babel… you get the idea. These movies tell the story of common humanity (check out all these people! they're all sharing something!) even as they tell slick, well-plotted, popcorn-ready stories.

Well, John Hersey's Hiroshima was doing the intersecting plots thing long before it was cool—skillfully blending the memories of six different survivors of the Hiroshima bombing into a coherent narrative.

Except that Hersey did it using real people's stories, illustrating the way their lives intersected and diverged at various points during a massive, catastrophic act of war. Hersey's story shows us a real-world example of how these crazy overlaps can happen, using journalistic directness (rather than literary or scriptwriting trickery) to highlight real connections.

Yeah, we'll italicize "real" one more time, because it's so mind-bogglingly important and awe-inspiring: Hersey's story is real.

The intersecting plots device is super-powerful in Hersey's work because it draws attention to the subjects' common humanity as they tackle huge challenges in the wake of The Bomb's insane levels of devastation. And it's that "common humanity" part of the equation that's the most important takeaway of Hiroshima.

Because if there's one thing that highlights just how alike one another we all are in our shared needs for food, water, safety, love and hope, it's the aftermath of an event that leaves countless numbers of innocent people dead, dying or injured. Brrr.

Hersey takes this bleakity-bleak-bleak subject, though, and manages to show the reader how people can not only survive, but thrive, in the aftermath of horror. Dang, that is the kind of story that all humanity can get behind. For real.

Hiroshima Resources

Websites

New Yorker, New Yorker
Check out the original version of Hiroshima (first four chapters only) at The New Yorker online. It took up the entire magazine.

New Yorker, New Yorker, Part Deux (er, Cinq)
Check out the fifth chapter updating us on all six subjects forty years later.

Articles and Interviews

Let's Get Retro
To celebrate The New Yorker's eighty-fifth anniversary, the magazine picked "Eighty-Five from The Archive." This one focuses on Hiroshima.

John Hersey died just a few years after publishing his update to the Hiroshima story.
Check out his 1993 obituary from The New York Times.

Video

Hiroshima, in Video
Check out this piece on the impact of Hiroshima when it first came out in The New Yorker.

From the Archives
Check out this article from the Atlantic, which provides archival video of the blast/aftermath from the U.S. War Department. Keep a look out for the Red Cross Hospital.

Audio

In case your eyes are feeling tired…
Check out the audiobook of Hiroshima here.

Images

Don't Judge A Magazine By Its Cover
The cover of the "Hiroshima" issue of The New Yorker gave no clue as to what was inside…

The Man Himself
In case you were wondering, here's what Hersey looked like…