Thursday, December 15, 2016

And Then The Sky Exploded by David A. Poulsen

Thirteen-year-old Christian Larkin is attending the funeral of his beloved great-grandfather, William Deaver. GG Will as he was affectionately known was a kind man who had worked in the area of material physics. However his funeral is met by protesters yelling about Deaver being a killer and a bomb maker. A few days after the funeral, Christian approaches his mother to ask her why there were protesters at GG Will's funeral but she won't tell him and refers him to his dad. But Christian's dad, who is vice-principal at Anna Fernicola Middle School also won't talk to him about what happened.  The only thing Christian has learned, from the local Trimble Times-Herald, is that the protesters were at the funeral to protest Mr. Deaver's involvement in the Manhattan Project.

Both Christian and his sister Carly attend Anna Fernicola Middle School and this is where Christian begins to understand what his great-grandfather was involved in. The class bully, Lorelei Faber accuses Christian of having a great-grandfather who "helped kill millions of people." She mentions the Manhattan Project, in which a group of scientists from all over the world worked on a building an atomic bomb that was eventually dropped on Japan. This leads Christian to do his own research on the Manhattan Project.

He discovers that his great-grandfather was among the famous scientists who worked on the secret Manhattan Project. They were developing an atom bomb using uranium and plutonium. The first atom bomb to be used in war was dropped on the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Christian learns that over two hundred thousand people died either directly or indirectly because of the first bomb. As he tries to comprehend that number of people dying, Christian wonders "if there were any Anne Frank-type stories about Hiroshima" to help him understand the human side of what happened.

Christian's best friend is a deaf boy, Carson Tinsley whom he met in football camp during the summer.The two boys like to eat and talk football. Because of his disability, Carson who is sixteen is in Christian's grade nine class. Carson can drive and so he often takes his father's 2003 Chevy Cavalier to school, picking up Christian along the way.

Christian attends the first meeting of the Weston Comprehensive High School Travel Club. The club's twenty-six members has to decide on a destination for it's trip this year. The students have suggested France, England, Germany and Portugal as possibilities, but Christian suggests that they consider Japan because of its very different culture. The club's advisor, Mr. Pettigrew wants them to consider all of these options including Japan. After the meeting one of the club members and a classmate, Zaina Nawal asks Christian to go see a Japanese movie showing at the Variety Theatre on the weekend. However, Chris who is infatuated with the beautiful Julie LaPointe, who happens to be dating another guy, turns her down. But Carson tells him he needs to forget about Julie and think about the girl who is actually interested in him.

At a second meeting of the Travel Club, Mr. Pettigrew tells the members that he has discovered there is a program through the Japanese embassy which helps with the cost of travel. Due to the 2011 tsunami disaster there has been a decline in tourism to Japan and the government is providing funding for school trips from abroad. So Mr. Pettigrew suggests that he and Chris research more into this option. After the meeting, Chris talks to Zaina and apologizes to her for turning her down, telling her he would in fact like to go to the movie with her. They exchange numbers.

After completing their research on Japan, Mr. Pettigrew tells Chris that they must get approval for the trip from the school administration and the Parents Council for the trip.At the Parents Council meeting, Lorelei's mother who is the vice-chair strongly voices her opposition to the Japan trip. However, Lorelei stands up to her mother and the trip is approved by the Parents Council.

As part of his preparation for the Japan trip Chris goes to the library with his girlfriend Zaina to research the Manhattan project. He tells Zaina that "someone in my family might have been partly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people..." and that he needs to learn more. Christian's best friend, Carson questions him as to why he wants to go to Japan. Christian tells him that partly it's for himself, that he wants to be proud of his great-grandpa. He also tells Carson that "I know it's crazy, but I can't help it.I keep having these thoughts that maybe there's something I can do to...I don't know...make a difference..."

Will Christian find what he's seeking in visiting Japan - a way to come to terms with his grandfather's actions and to understand an important part of world history?


And Then The Sky Exploded is a short piece of historical fiction that explores the ethics of dropping the atom bomb on Japan, unfortunately not in a very in-depth way. Poulsen does this through his main character, young Christian Deaver, whose great-grandfather, the fictional William Deaver,  was one of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. Unfortunately, no one in his family will openly discuss this with him, leaving him to feel conflicted over the actions of a beloved great-grandfather.

Children's Peace Monument
In order to demonstrate to young readers what that day was like in Hiroshima, seventy years ago, Poulsen presents a separate narrative of a young girl, Yuko which chronicles the experience of a survivor of the atomic bomb explosion. Christian was able to better understand the effects of the Holocaust by reading Anne Frank's diary and wishes to better understand what it was like in Hiroshima.  "Anne Frank. I read that book a couple of years ago and I felt like crap when I'd finished because I knew she'd died...I was actually able to feel something because it was one person.Or a few people. And because of the diary, I knew them -- especially Anne. I wondered if there were any Anne Frank-type stories about Hiroshima." And so through Yuko's narratives the reader learns what it was like that day when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. However, for Christian, he begins to understand when he visits the Atomic Bomb Dome. "And standing there at the Dome, I could see in my mind's eye people sitting at desks, maybe some talking on the telephone, some typing, just starting their day's work. This place -- this made it personal. Like Sadako. Like Anne Frank. Both young girls. Both died in the war."  The two narratives intersect when Christian meets Yuko's grand-daughter and asks if he can meet her Obaasan,  Yuko. Apologizing on behalf of his great-grandfather and explaining to Yuko that his relative tried unsuccessfully to stop the atomic bombing of Japan, brings healing and forgiveness to Christian and peace to Yuko. She tells him, "You have done something for me, Christian-kun. You have heard my words. You have listened with respect to me. And believed me. And cared. That is enough."

Poulsen doesn't delve too deeply into a consideration of the ethics of dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. It's easy enough to understand what led to the decision to drop the bombs (America wanted to end the war quickly) and easy to criticize through the lens of time. Zaina points out to Christian that sometimes people had no choice as to what they did during wartime, but Christian counters that the scientists on the Manhattan Project were not prisoners and were not forced to work on the bomb - they did so willingly. But Zaina states, "...maybe it's a case of doing what you have to do to end the war and stop more people from dying." Christian at first considers this argument mainly because he hasn't heard a counter argument to it. Eventually through his friend Carson, Christian learns that some of the scientists working on the Manhattan project did attempt to appeal to President Truman not to use to bomb. One of those scientists was Christian's great-grandfather.

For the most part, And Then The Sky Exploded is a short, high interest novel about the bombing of Hiroshima. This novel would make a good introduction for younger readers of the issues surrounding the use of atomic/nuclear weapons. Catholic readers also might consider exploring the Catholic theological doctrine of just war.

There is the odd stereotypical character such as the class bully, Lorelei Faber who is a "big, overweight, round-faced, nasally voiced rich kid" who "does her hurting with words, not fists." But even Lorelei turns out to have redeeming qualities.Christian has a good mix of supporting characters including Carson who helps him work through his mixture of feelings and Zaina who gets him to think differently about Lorelei. Disappointing is the lack of parental input into Christian's journey to understand his family's connection to the atomic bombing and the backstory. If this had been included it could have made Christian's journey more engaging.

Readers can check out the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum website which provides a wealth of information including a virtual museum, survivor stories and a section on Sadako a young survivor who is mentioned in Poulsen's novel and who died from leukemia and for whom the Children's Peace Monument was erected.

Information on the Children's Peace Monument can be found here.

The Manhattan Project webpage of the U.S History website has a wealth of information as well as links to other useful site.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission website has a page devoted to Canada's Historical Role in Developing Nuclear Weapons.

Book Details:

And Then The Sky Exploded by David A. Poulsen
Toronto: Dundurn Press    2016

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