Twelve-year-old Natsu lives with her father and 6-year-old sister, Asa, in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in northern China.
Kachan died while giving birth to Asa, so when Tochan is conscripted to support Japan’s failing war effort, Auntie, an older neighbor, moves in—but the summer of 1945 brings the Soviet invasion. The settlers set off on foot toward the city of Harbin. Facing harsh weather, angry Chinese villagers, bullets from Soviet planes, hunger, and exhaustion, many die along the way. Harbin is filled with desperate Japanese, and Natsu begs on the streets, dreaming of finding Tochan. Some parents kill their own children, believing that a more merciful fate; others sell them to Chinese or Russians, hoping they will at least be fed and cared for. Unfortunately, the characters and their relationships feel static and two-dimensional in Natsu’s free-verse narration, limiting the emotional impact. The historical note troublingly compares the plight of Japanese settlers who took over Chinese land and whose government inflicted appalling atrocities on the local population (glossed over in the book) to refugees such as those from Rwanda and Syria. Readers may struggle to make sense of a scene in which Natsu and Asa aggressively confront a hungry Chinese boy. The suffering of the Japanese settlers—duped and abandoned by their country—and the suffering of the Chinese they displaced are not fully contextualized.
Sheds light on a fascinating episode in history but sadly does not do justice to the nuances. (afterword) (Historical verse fiction. 10-14)