Book Bag: ‘Beyond the Monuments in Washington, D.C.’ by Michael Jacobson-Hardy; ‘The Sky We Shared’ by Shirley Reva Vernick

  • A Japanese Mulberry paper balloon that was downed by Navy aircraft in California in January 1945. These balloons, launched from Japan during WWII, were outfitted with bombs and designed to explode over indiscrimate targets. Image from Wikipedia/U.S. Army/public domain

Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 06, 2023

The Sky We Shaped
by Shirley Reva Vernick
Cinco Puntos Press

Amherst author Shirley Reva Vernick has written a number of Young Adult novels based on historical events, including her debut book, “The Blood Lie,” a story of an incident in an upstate New York town in 1928 in which Jewish residents were accused of killing a Christian child to use her blood for holiday foods.

In her middle grade novel, “The Sky We Shared,” Vernick delves into a lesser-known chapter from World War II, in which Japan constructed long-range balloons rigged with bombs that were designed to drift over the U.S. and come down indiscriminately, igniting forest fires, blowing up houses, and spreading panic.

The story is alternately narrated by two 14-year-old girls: Tamiko Nakaoka, who lives outside of Hiroshima, Japan, and Nellie Doud, from the small town of Bly in south central Oregon. Though separated by 6,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean and a vast war, the two teens will find their lives strangely linked.

In late 1944, Tamiko, living with her elderly aunt, is suffering along with the rest of the Japanese population from severe food shortages as the war drags on. Worse, her older brother, Kyo, has just been drafted by the army; she fears she’ll never see him again.

In Oregon in early spring 1945, meantime, Nellie longs for the war to an end so that her father, serving in the Aleutian Islands in the Pacific, will come home and the two of them can again share their love of astronomy.

The war has touched her in other ways: Her friend and neighbor, Joey, has become very distant since his older brother was killed in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium in late 1944.

Despite the hardships in Japan, Tamiko wants to do her bit for the nation, so she’s thrilled when she and her classmates are enlisted to work on a secret project for the army: gluing large sheets of washi paper together in an empty movie theater.

The project soon becomes an ordeal, with the girls working 12-hour shifts, with only a few rice balls and some vegetable scraps to eat for their two meals a day; they sleep on the floor in an unheated dormitory at night.

But Tamiko is happy to learn that their project, known in Japan as “Fu-Go,” is designed to loft deadly balloons, borne on high-level air currents, from Japan to the U.S.

“Ten thousand revenges,” she tells her friend and co-worker, Suki, echoing what the government has said about the ‘success’ of the project. “And we had a hand in it.”

Suki doesn’t share those feelings. “What we did is killing, Tamiko. Killing innocent people by our own hands.”

As Vernick explains in an afterword, the Fu-Go project actually resulted in just a few fatalities in the U.S. But for the friends and families of those victims, it was still a shock and a tragedy.

For her part, Nellie will find the war coming home in a way she never imagined, including through a chance encounter with a Japanese-American family, locked in an internment camp during the war, when they’re being transported through Bly.

In the end, both Tamiko and Nellie will learn something about the complexity both of war and the makeup of “enemies,” as well as the danger of hatred of the “other” that’s cultivated through propaganda. Hatred, they’ll discover, does nothing to relieve the pain of loss.

Shirley Reva Vernick’s website is shirleyrevavernick.com.

Beyond the Monuments in
Washington, D.C.

Photographs by Michael
Jacobson-Hardy; Levellers Press

The gross disparity between the grandeur of the federal buildings and monuments in Washington, D.C., and the severe poverty in other parts of the city has been an issue for decades.

According to data from a number of sources, including the Brookings Institution (a D.C. think tank), Black residents in the capital face the harshest circumstances, with substantially lower incomes, higher unemployment and homelessness levels, and lower life expectancies than White residents.

Northampton photographer Michael Jacobson-Hardy, who traveled to Washington in 1999 and the early 2000s at the suggestion of Ralph Nader, documented some of these contrasts with a wealth of images that are collected in “Beyond the Monuments in Washington, D.C.,” published by Levellers Press of Amherst.

Jacobson-Hardy’s book also includes essays by the late historian Lois E. Horton and Michael Stoops, head of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Above all, it offers black and white images from our nation’s capital that don’t make it onto tourist brochures or websites.

The photographer juxtaposes familiar images from the city — the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol Building, well-appointed congressional offices and cabinet rooms — with portraits of abandoned homes, run-down streets, and crumbling schools where Black students must walk through metal detectors to enter the hallways.

Another contrast: a room full of well-dressed white people attending a Republican fundraiser, and a bus full of more everyday-looking people, mostly of color, facing the photographer with blank faces.

And one more: The book includes photos from the exclusive St. Albans School, a setting for many of Washington’s elite children, and an image of a student in Wilson High School, less than a mile from St. Albans. The young woman, from Ethiopia, sits next to a gaping hole in the wall.

Jacobson-Hardy has published a number of other photography books, including images of New England wilderness and portraits of people who have spent time incarcerated, or whose lives have been shaped by the decline of manufacturing jobs. In Washington, he writes, he was struck anew by the vast disparity in wealth between the country’s richest and poorest citizens.

Just around the corner from the hotel he was staying at, he learned, was what was then one of the largest homeless shelters in the country.

“Washington, D.C. symbolizes our nation to the world,” he writes. “What kind of society do we wish to be known for, and what have we become?”

Sadly, it seems little has changed in the capital in 20-plus years.