Twelve year old Yuriko has a privileged life. She lives in Hiroshima with her father, aunt, and cousin, has a best friend who is like a sister, and enjoys school. However, there are signs of the war all around her and air raids siren practices have become almost a daily occurrence. The war becomes impossible to ignore as a young man in the neighborhood receives a red card from the Emperor and is sent to fight for the Imperial Army. When Yuriko discovers information about her past, and soon after the atomic bomb is dropped on her city, her whole world seemingly comes to an end. The Last Cherry Blossom is an incredible story based upon the life of Burkinshaw’s own mother, and is an important read for students and teachers alike.
Yuriko is in the seventh grade and lives with her papa in Hiroshima, Japan. Her Aunt Kimiko and cousin Genji live with them, and her mother died when she was young. A business owner, Yuriko’s father has wealth and status, and is well respected by all who know him. Papa is protective of his only child, and when Yuriko’s teacher questions her family tree project for school, Papa has her fired; there is a secret that the teacher knows and Yuriko does not.
Although air raids happen almost daily and Yuriko sometimes hears news of the war, she lives a normal life and spends a lot of time with her best friend, Machiko. When the girls hear that their neighborhood friend, Jiro, is being sent to war, fear becomes a reality that begins to set in. When Yuriko’s papa marries Sumiyo and Aunt Kimiko marries Akira, change seems to be all that’s happening around her.
On New Year’s Eve, Yuriko and her family learn that Jiro has been killed in battle in the Philippines, and not long after, Yuriko learns that her family is not what she thought it was. She is torn up about the lies, secrets, and betrayal by her father, and wonders why no one told her the truth earlier. As the war becomes closer, Machiko is sent to work in a factory that builds airplane parts, and Yuriko and her family must stay at their country home for safety. Papa is not able to be there all of the time due to work, but he visits from time to time when he is able.
A few months later in May, the family learns of the Allied Powers’ victory over Europe. With hope that the end of the war is near, Sumiyo decides it is safe to return the city. Just a few short days later, their world changes forever: on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Yuriko and Machiko were outside when it happened. A booming loud noise. An intense white light. Trembling ground below them. Darkness.
When Yuriko comes to, buried in rubble, she can hear Machiko’s faint voice, but cannot get to her. Soon Machiko’s voice is gone, and Sumiyo’s hand reaches for Yuriko, forcing her to leave her friend behind. Yuriko and Sumiyo find Aunt Kimiko and Genji, but learn that their father is still missing. Camps and tents are set up around the ashen city, as people wander around trying to find their loved ones. Homes are gone. Everything is gone. Sumiyo and Yuriko soon find Papa on the ground at the train station; he is unconscious but has a pulse. The two of them have hope as they find a wheelbarrow to carry Papa in, but their hearts are crushed when he dies on the way back to the camp. Soon after, they learn that Aunt Kimiko’s husband, Akira, has also died.
Aunt Kimiko and Genji go to live with Akira’s family, and Yuriko and Sumiyo stay with her uncle. Yuriko becomes very ill, vomiting daily and unable to eat. Afraid she has contracted a deadly disease, she is relieved when she finally starts to feel well again. As time for school nears, Yuriko is sent to a boarding high school, and says goodbye to Sumiyo, whose health is failing; Yuriko knows she will never see Sumiyo again. Time passes and Yuriko is happy in school. One day, she receives a letter from her biological father and decides it is time to meet him. She takes a train back to Hiroshima, and struggles being back there; she even considers taking her own life. When she sees a single cherry blossom floating in the water, she remembers her papa and the importance of making him proud. Yuriko reunites with her long lost father, and realizes that he’s been with her all along.
The Last Cherry Blossom is a story about family, courage, growing up, and change. It would be a wonderful addition to any middle school library, and a useful resource to teach students about the effect that war has on all people, no matter what side they are on.