Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes is an exceptionally well-written children’s historical novel by the Canadian-American author, Eleanor Coerr. It was published in 1977. The novel focuses on the historical event of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, detonated by the United States during World War II. Thus, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes concentrates on the story of a young Japanese girl named Sadako Sasaki who became another victim of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. The novel resonates with the themes of peace, love, courage, and hope, which gets constructed around the context of the bombings that irradiate the protagonist with an illness that will lead to her death. Thus, death also becomes another theme that gets constituted in the novel.
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes | Summary
The story begins with the mention of Sadako’s excellent skills in running. She could run as fast as lightning. The novel moves on to describe the day of August 1954. On that morning, Sadako runs to the street to see the atmosphere in Japan. Thankfully, the sky was not embraced with any clouds but rather it was brightly sunny and Sadako considers this a good sign. She goes back to the house and decides to wake up her siblings, Masahiro, Mitsue, and Eiji. Next, Sadako runs to the kitchen and asks her mother to hurry up as they will be late for the carnival and to this her mother responds by saying that it is not carnival but peace day, a memorial day to remember all the people who died in the atomic bomb. And her father reminds her that her own grandmother died on such a tragic day.
Sadako leaves her house with her family for the carnival and she meets with her best friend, Chizuko. As they passed by the side of the memorial building, Sadako tells her friend that she remembers the heat of the atomic bomb, and to this, her friend assures Sadako that it is impossible that she remembers since she was an infant at that time. But Sadako insists that she remembers that day. On Peace day, the families write the names of the relatives who died during the atomic bombings on a lantern and float them in the air. As she goes back to her house, Sadako remembers the day and sighs happily because it turned out to be great and she understands this to be another good luck sign.
As Sadako is an excellent runner, she is selected at her school for the relay race. This means that she can keep hopes of making it to the team in junior high school if she wins the relay race. Therefore, Sadako trains harder for the competition. It is during her practice she notices that she is constantly feeling dizziness and weakness in her body but she keeps this a secret from her family because she doesn’t want anyone to worry about her. One day, during one such long run, Sadako almost faints to the ground, and later, she is taken to the hospital by her family to do a checkup. At this point, the doctor conveys to them that Sadako is diagnosed with leukemia. Everyone is devastated by the news, especially Sadako.
Leukemia is often referred to as the atomic bomb disease and Sadako knows that such a disease is very common in her place. But she becomes shattered to find that she needs to remain in the hospital for some weeks until she is recovered. Her family pays her visits regularly and one day, Chizuko too comes to visit her at the hospital. She brings along with her paper and scissors and tells Sadako the story of the thousand cranes. The story goes like this: when a person falls sick and if that person can make a thousand paper cranes, then it means that god will grant them a wish. Upon hearing such a story of hope, Sadako is relieved and happy that Chizuko brought her a good luck charm.
But as time passes, Sadako becomes weaker and drained out from her disease. She loses her appetite and is unable to eat even her favorite food that her mother brings for her. Sadako begins to speak about death but her family and nurses tell her to keep her courage. Sadako has the strength to make only six hundred and forty-four cranes and by that time she becomes closer to the brink of death. On the last day, Sadako looks at her cranes beautifully hanging from the ceiling of her room and dreams of freedom. The next day, on October 25, 1955, Sadako dies. After her death, her classmates manage to make the rest of the number of cranes as a sign of good luck and to show Ssadako’s bravery.
Sadako and the Thousand Cranes | Analysis
Coerr closely knits the themes of hope, courage, and love and thus, bestows the novel with an abundant richness of symbolism. The author’s brilliance lies in the fact that Coerr successfully attempts to embrace all of these themes within her protagonist, Sadako, who has come to represent and symbolize hope and courage among the people of Japan. As the story begins, the author presents to us several “good signs” in the life of Sadako. But the novel resists categorizing it into some tragic novel and rather it continues to manifest the symbols of hope.
At the beginning of the story, as Sadako looks out at the sky, she sighs with relief that the morning was bright and sunny. For Sadako, this is a good sign, a sign of hope. Following this, as Sadako’s mother asks her to wait for some time to leave for the carnival, she becomes low-spirited with her family and sulks while she sits down and waits. But then she notices a spider pacing across the room and she is suddenly happy again because Sadako believes spiders bring good luck, unlike her brother who believes spiders do not represent such a thing. Thus, we can discern from this brilliant knitting of the theme of good luck and hope that the author is preparing the readers for a tragic turn of events.
The author constantly brings forth the element of freedom as well, to elevate the theme of hope. Such an element is manifested at first on the event of Peace day as Sadako witnesses the mayors and the Buddhist priests, freeing hundreds of white doves from their cages and into the sky. Upon seeing this, Sadako thinks, “the doves looked like spirits of the dead flying into the freedom of the sky”. On the same day, the readers are offered upon the event of writing the names of the people who died during the atomic bombings and flying them above the sky in lanterns. Once again, represents a shade of freedom accompanied by flying. Moreover, the author uses a simile to describe the floating of the lanterns above the sky and the line goes, “They floated out to sea like a swarm of fireflies against the dark water”. Herein, the theme of hope comes to be present as the fireflies are symbolic of hope and guidance.
Coerr employs the theme of love alongside the theme of hope, as well. The theme of love is knitted around the family of Sadako. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, we see the family praying together for their happiness. Along with this, Sadako’s father also prayed for “his fine children. And he prayed that his family would be protected from the atom bomb disease called leukemia”. Such a shade of closeness among the family, undoubtedly, evokes the theme of love. Moreover, on Peace day as mentioned above, the floating of the lanterns represents the love and bond shared between the family. This is clearly manifested when Mr.Sasaki writes the names of all six members of his family in the lantern and especially when Sadako writes the name of her grandmother on her lantern, the theme of love gets heightened. Thus, we can say that through the shades of love, the novel brings forth the theme of courage that Sadako receives from her family and her friends, at her worst time.
The theme of courage is elevated the most at the point when Chizuko brings her a good luck charm to give her hope of courage. The story undoubtedly is enriched with elements of hope and courage and this is clearly manifested in these lines:
“Sadako took the golden crane and made a wish. The funniest little feeling came over her when she touched the bird. It must be a good omen”.
The story of the thousand cranes encourages Sadako to never give up and hope for the best. The thousand origami cranes, thus, symbolizes Sadako’s bravery and courage and the greatest of her good sign or good luck charm.
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes — Themes
The novel explores the theme of peace around the historical event of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, which is the predominant context of the story. The author brings forth this particular theme alongside the mentioning of these bombings and thus, subtly expresses the desire of the people for peace. Such a dream of desire is conveyed, at first, on Peace day itself. As Sadako’s mother scolds her for mentioning Peace day as a carnival, Mrs. Sasaki reminds her about the specialty of that day:
“Every year on August sixth we remember those who died when the atom bomb was dropped on our city. It is a memorial day”.
The novel describes the event of Peace day as such:
At the entrance to the Peace Park people filed through the memorial building in silence. On the walls were photographs of the dead and dying in a ruined city. The atomic bomb — the Thunderbolt — had turned Hiroshima into a desert”.
The atomic bomb is also referred to as “Thunderbolt”, probably to suggest the sudden drop of the bombings.
The side effects of the bombings are also indicated in the novel. As Sadako walks through the event of Peace day, she quickly turns her head away from the “ugly whitish scars” of the people and the narrator explains through Sadako’s perspective that, “The atom bomb had burned them so badly that they no longer looked human”. And of course, the biggest side effect of the bombings for the people irradiated with the poison of the gas was the disease leukemia or the “atom bomb disease”.
Leukemia takes down Sadako and her friend, Kenji, who she befriends during her hospital stay. The extent of the effect of the poisonous bombings is manifested in the death of Kenji. Sadako is surprised to know that Kenji is diagnosed with leukemia as he was not born at that time. But Kenji, who is an orphan, tells her, “That isn’t important. The poison was in my mother’s body and I got it from her”. The author here brilliantly describes the extremity of the aftereffects of this disease in the aftermath of the bombs detonated by the United States upon Japan. Therefore, in exploring the causes of the atomic bombings and how it has destroyed Japan, the author sharply evokes the destruction of peace within this country, as well.
Sadako and the Thousand Cranes — Title of the Story
The title of the novel is very significant to the story as it symbolizes the hope and courage shown by the young girl of Japan that fell victim to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Sadako and the Thousand Cranes — Character Sketch
Sadako Sasaki — She is the protagonist of the story. The novel is mostly narrated from her perspective. She is portrayed as a gaily and energetic young girl who can run as fast as a whirlwind.
Sadako and the Thousand Cranes — Literary Devices
Coerr makes use of abundant literary devices within her novel to embody the story with enormous symbols and thus, creates a brilliant novel. The novel employs the devices of symbolism, simile, and foreshadowing.
The story of the thousand cranes, the predominant context of the story, is symbolic of hope, courage, good luck charm, and love. The golden crane symbolizes and represents luck and thus, ensures Sadako that everything will be alright. She feels safe around the presence of the golden crane and it leads her to believe be hopeful. The novel also uses symbolism around the clothing of the kimono. Before she gets diagnosed with leukemia, Sadako’s mother promises her a kimono and tells her, “A girl your age should have one”. Thus, the kimono comes to be symbolic of her adulthood, which, unfortunately, Sadako never achieves as she dies before that moment.
The author uses the technique of foreshadowing as well. At the beginning of the story, the novel is abundant with good signs and good luck, as if warning the readers that this happiness won’t last. Moreover, the golden crane constantly assured Sadako of good omens. But only to destroy this as she dies of the disease and thus, here as well, the novel employs foreshadowing, preparing the readers for the worst to come.
In the novel, the readers witness ample use of simile. From comparing Sadako’s fast running to the whirlwind and winds to comparing her eating like “hungry dragons”, Coerr shrewdly knits the character portrayal of Sadako through similes. The element of freedom is also expressed through similes by the author. For instance, freedom is compared with the flying of the doves that “looked like spirits of the dead flying into the freedom of the sky”, and with the lanterns of freedom with “a swarm of fireflies against the dark water”.