Title: Under the Broken Sky
Author: Mariko Nagai
Publishing Date: October 15th 2019
Age Category & Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction
Summary: A beautifully told middle-grade novel-in-verse about a Japanese orphan’s experience in occupied rural Manchuria during World War II.
Twelve-year-old Natsu and her family live a quiet farm life in Manchuria, near the border of the Soviet Union. But the life they’ve known begins to unravel when her father is recruited to the Japanese army, and Natsu and her little sister, Cricket, are left orphaned and destitute.
In a desperate move to keep her sister alive, Natsu sells Cricket to a Russian family following the 1945 Soviet occupation. The journey to redemption for Natsu’s broken family is rife with struggles, but Natsu is tenacious and will stop at nothing to get her little sister back.
Literary and historically insightful, this is one of the great untold stories of WWII. Much like the Newbery Honor book Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, Mariko Nagai’s Under the Broken Sky is powerful, poignant, and ultimately hopeful.
T/CW: death, war, violence, grief
WRITING, CHARACTERS, SETTING
Under the Broken Sky follows the story of Natsu, a 12-year-old Japanese living in occupied Manchuria, China, together with her father and younger sister, Asa, during the World War II. Their father was recruited to the Japanese army, Natsu, Asa, and their neighbors had to flee to avoid the attack of the Soviet, Natsu had to sell Asa to a Russian woman with the hope that she will be taken care of, she fought to get her sister back and tried again to fulfill her promise to their father that they will go back to Japan together.
It is set around 1945—around the time Japan surrendered. It is written in verse, in Natsu’s point of view, and has seven parts based on the seasons, beginning on Summer and ending on the End of Winter.
I love the writing so much. Right at the beginning, it felt like these people are real. Perhaps my awareness that the story was based on real life also helped in feeling as such. I got carried away easily and felt this so much. A heartbreaking story that made me emotional.
We focus on getting to know Natsu, as we are seeing through her point of view. But it was not hard to see what kind of persons other characters are as well. I loved all of them including Natsu, Asa, their auntie and their father. I loved how we really see Natsu and Asa as children, but at the same time, we are reminded that they, including many other children like them in the past, were forced to forget that and had to face things that were tremendously hard even for adults to face. I have grown attached to them. I just wanted to protect them and really wish them a brighter future.
I also loved their relationships with one another. Their relationship with their Auntie was complicated, even I, did not like her at first as well. But I like how it progressed. It was very heartwarming to see them all protect, support, and love one other despite the situation they were in.
WAR, FAMILY, SURVIVAL
Under the Broken Sky shows the horrible things many people went through in WW II—specifically the Japanese children who were living in occupied Manchuria, China at that time, and their story of survival. It talks about family, what you will do to protect and save them, the effect of Japanese government state policies, what the society was like especially in a place where Japanese, Chinese, and Russians interact, and more.
This talks about a significant part in history I personally have limited knowledge of. Whenever I research about WW II, I also do not usually encounter stories about Manchuria. I think it is great that this book exists, as I have also learned many things about the lives of people in Manchuria and some of the things Japanese government did back then.
I love the small, yet important, details included. It shows many things from how people back then were taught that being patriotic only means fighting and dying for their Emperor. That was ingrained in their minds but later we also see Natsu question what she has been taught. At such young age, they were taught how to fight, use weapons, and other things that they should not had to learn but they had to, for them to survive. We also see the anger and terror on both sides when some Japanese and Chinese interact specifically in that occupied land, but then, we also see how another group of Chinese helped them while they were trying to flee, despite them also being in need. In this war-torn world, in this world where their governments were fighting on different sides, we see this small yet heavily impactful and important act of kindness. We also see the effect of their government hiding the fact to the civilians that they were losing the war. And other things about Japanese culture, like how they make senninbari, and more.
I have read the afterword once I was done with the story, but I think it would be great for readers to read that first if you want to understand first the real history in which the story was based. It was helpful and important.
I just wished the author used a better word in the afterword mentioning the Philippines and how we were affected by Japan’s state policy and actions. I trust Nagai understands that we were heavily negatively affected too. What Japan’s government did to our country is beyond horrible. They took many lives and left scars that still have not healed. I would have preferred if “occupied” was used as well, as that is a more accurate word, and should have been acknowledged.
Under the Broken Sky talks about a horrific side of history and shows everything unfold through the eyes of a 12-year-old child. It is a story of survival, those who made it, those whose journeys were shorter and did not survive, and at its core, shows how civilians, especially children, caught up in war be deeply and irreversibly affected for the rest of their lives, reminding us of the things that should have not happened in the first place and should never be repeated. A heartbreaking and heavy read that gives emphasis on family and love. It is also informative as it talks about the events that occurred in Manchuria in WW II, but I suggest researching more about the subject if you are interested to learn more—which I will also do. As relying on this alone is not enough to fully understand the real events that occurred. I highly recommend.
Mariko Nagai is the author of Under the Broken Sky and Dust of Eden as well as several books of poetry and fiction for adults. She has received the Pushcart Prize in both poetry and fiction, as well as many other accolades. She is an associate professor of creative writing and Japanese literature at Temple University, Japan Campus, in Tokyo, where she is also the director of research.