Barefoot Gen

27 06 2012

Every once in a while you read a book that hits you hard, beats you down emotionally, or gives you a metaphorical punch in the gut.  Barefoot Gen is one of those books.

The main character of this moving graphic novel is Gen Nakoaka, but really it’s Keiji Nakazawa, the author of the book.  You see, just like Gen (the character), Nakazawa was in Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945 – the day the U.S. dropped an atom bomb.   This first volume (out of 10) focuses on the weeks before the bomb, and how Gen’s family is affected by Japan’s war against England and America.  His oldest brother enlists in the army, another brother is sent out of the city to work for the government farms, his father and mother are trying their hardest to keep the family together and properly fed, and his sister and younger brother are slowly starving.

In front of the Peace Bell in the Hiroshima Peace Park, a group of Japanese 6th graders interviewed me to practice their English and ask me about my thoughts on world peace. I said it was a good idea.

The book is a history lesson rolled up into a personal narrative, with funny moments, touching bits, and a whole load of horror.   It was especially moving to me, considering the fact that I bought it in the Hiroshima Peace Museum, just a few hundred yards from the spot where the bomb exploded 67 years ago.

With the brand new book in my backpack, I strolled through Hiroshima, past the A-Bomb dome (one of the few buildings that survived the blast), the Peace Memorial, and groups of young Japanese school kids practicing their English by interviewing American tourists about their wishes for peace in the world.  It was a moving, emotional day.

Minooka TAP students in front of Hiroshima’s A-Bomb Dome.

We can argue all day about whether or not America should have dropped the bomb, but that’s not the point.  It happened and we can’t change it, but we should understand how it impacted regular people.  This book humanizes the tragedy in a similar way that the Maus books, Anne Frank, The Book Thief, and Number the Stars gave faces to the Holocaust victims – Gen becomes a face for the tragedy on the other side of the war – an innocent boy, who endures countless horrors through no fault of his own.

This is the 29th book I’ve read this summer.  I’m shooting for 90 books in 90 days over break, and I’m sure that the next 9 Barefoot Gen books will be among the ones I read this year.  

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