John Hersey’s Hiroshima is a vital contribution to investigative journalism and the keeping of historical records. It is a work of brevity, analysis, and vivid description. Hiroshima is a work of professionalism mixed with human compassion. Through it, we experience the goings-on and thoughts of several of the survivors of the first atomic blast which America inflicted upon the Japanese people in World War II.
It is significant not only for its play-by-play, individualistic examination of the events which took place directly after the blast, but also for its thorough description of the science behind the results of the atomic bomb assault. At the time of the story’s release, Hersey included many of the bizarre details regarding the effects of radiation which had been observed in thousands of patients.
Even decades later, these words carry the same weight they did back in 1946 when the work was originally published as one entire issue of The New Yorker. The events which take place are as real as they were when the victims of the atomic atrocity saw them unfolding before their very eyes. It is a tale about the unexpected, the unknown, the unimaginable.
It is about suffering and the results of immoral acts of war. It is a story which neither tries to demonize the bomb, nor glorify it in its terrible use. This is a story of charity, heroism, and corporal works of mercy on the part of some individuals and of panic and heartache on the part of others. And, though Truman Capote invented the genre of “the nonfiction novel” with his book In Cold Blood in 1965, it may be argued that this work of Hersey’s is an earlier take on the nonfiction novel.
Hiroshima follows the series of events which take place before, during, and after the dropping of the bomb through the eyes of half a dozen souls. These were Miss Toshiko Sasaki, Dr. Masakazu Fujii, Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, Fr. Wilhelm Kleinsorge, Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, and Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto. “A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors…now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see” (Hersey 4).
Amid the devastation and alien forms which death and misery take as the effects of the radiation perpetuate themselves, we see men and women of varying creeds and nationalities helping their community in acts of selflessness.
21st-century news-based literature focuses on tweets as a source for common knowledge. But in the 1940’s people still employed the postal service and the medium of snail mail to send bits of information back and forth to one another.
Thus, whereas we see tweets embedded in modern digital journalism, personal letters were an interesting source of information in Hersey’s day of reporting. He includes excerpts from several personal letters. Using these in his coverage of the story definitely delivers a strong human connection to the story. It is not hard for the facts alone to evoke sympathy from any audience.
Some readers may require a strong stomach to be able to swallow what Hersey presents in the descriptions based on first-hand accounts. The reader is exposed to the gut-wrenching scenes of what happened to the people of Hiroshima after the bomb had done its job.
It is an enlightening work of American storytelling. It reflects the horrible decision which this nation took upon itself when it delt out an unholy desolation on an unassuming civilian population