The Blossom and the Firefly by Sherri L. Smith
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In The Blossom and the Firefly , Sherri L. Smith’s excellent, meticulously researched new young adult novel, two Japanese teenagers defending “the home islands” in the final days of World War II do what people have always done in times of war: fall in love with total strangers.
Although teenagers in love are often filled with anxiety, Hana and Taro don’t have to bother with all the insecurities that attend first love. They don’t have to worry about whether they really like each other, whether their love will last, or whether their parents will approve. Questions like these are irrelevant, because Hana and Taro don’t have a future - literally. When they meet they both know that Taro, a nineteen-year-old air force recruit, is scheduled to crash his plane into an American aircraft carrier the following day as part of a futile effort to forestall Japan’s inevitable defeat.
Love - at least love of anything other than the Emperor and the Japanese way of life - is supposed to be the last thing on the minds of a “firefly” (a kamikaze pilot, who will burn brightly and quickly die) and a “blossom” (hana in Japanese).
As usual, though, love never cares what is supposed to happen. Smith, in eloquent prose,depicts the inevitable burgeoning romance. Drawn together by a shared love of music and a shared sense of trauma (the fifteen-year-old Hana is the survivor of a bombing that left her buried underground for a considerable period of time), Taro and Hana snatch at a few brief hours of happiness. When a series of reprieves gives them a few more days and the chance to grow closer, they have to decide whether they can bear to embrace a love that lives on the threshold between life and death.
“Because,” as Smith writes, “some moments can never have an after, no matter how much we want what might have been.”
An engrossing, moving depiction of teenagers caught up in a war they don’t fully understand, The Blossom and the Firefly is also an unusual look at the Pacific War from the Japanese point of view - a view that changes during the course of the novel, as the nationalistic beliefs that Hana and Taro were raised on begin to recede in the face of defeat and rumors of terrible events in China.
The book’s sole weakness is that readers are not given a sense of just how terrible these events were; the extent of Japanese war crimes during World War II is quickly glossed over. This may have been for fear that an exposition would make readers less sympathetic to the lovers’ dilemma. But Taro and Hana play no part in the atrocities committed in the streets of Nanjing or in the laboratories of Harbin, and the omission of these events robs the narrative of the ability to clarify just how grotesque Taro’s planned sacrifice is, how wrong it would be for him to die and Hana to suffer in order that torturers and murderers might save their own skins. In spite of this, though, the novel is profoundly - although never polemically - anti-war. It depicts,realistically but age-appropriately, the quotidian sufferings of a war-torn nation, which weigh most heavily on those who do not initiate the conflict. But although the characters may sometimes feel hopeless, the reader should not.
This is a YA novel, so all is never lost. “And,” as the novel points out, “there are miracles.”
The Blossom and the Firefly
by Sherri L. Smith
Hardcover | $17.99
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Feb 25, 2020 | 320 Pages | Young Adult