Under the Broken Sky

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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, Asa, are left orphaned and destitute.

In a desperate move to keep her sister alive, Natsu sells Asa 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.

304 pages                        978-1250159212                                 Ages 10-14

Keywords:  novel in verse, orphan, World War II, historical fiction, redemption, sisters, perseverance, determination, family, 10 year old, 11 year old, 12 year old, 13 year old, 14 year old, resilience, Social Studies Curriculum, refugees, diversity, diverse books

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“Don’t give up

‘Cause I believe there’s a place

There’s a place where we belong”

-- Peter Gabriel (1986)

 

Natsu, the elder sister, is now twelve. She was six when her mother died while giving birth to Asa:

 

“Kachan’s Ghost

 

Some nights like tonight when I can’t sleep,

I count memories of Kachan like people count

sheep. I remember her singing:

 

she only sang one song about a girl who went

to America wearing red shoes. I remember

when she used to sit really close by the lamp

 

to sew or mend, she would always lick the end

of the thread, squinting her eyes, before she put it through

the eye of the needle. It made Tochan laugh every time.

 

Laughing is something that Tochan doesn’t do now.

He must have buried his laughter inside

Kachan’s coffin with her body. I remember Tochan yelling

 

at me to keep the water boiling so he could melt

the frozen ground. Only then could he bury Kachan.

I remember Goat living in our hut

 

that long winter so we could give milk to Asa.

And when Goat died, we were all sad

but thanked her for a good dinner that night.

 

I remember before Asa came, Tochan,

Kachan, and I slept in the shape of the Chinese

characters for river, three parallel lines, with me in the middle.

 

And when Asa came, I slept where Kachan once slept,

with Asa in the middle. Tochan calls my mom

Kachan--mother--and that’s why I call her this.

 

I also know that every morning,

Tochan talks to Kachan at the altar,

asking her to look after Asa and me.

 

That makes me real sad, though I don’t tell

Tochan I hear what he says. Sometimes I know why

Kachan died: because I didn’t love her enough.

 

If I had loved her enough, she would’ve wanted

to stay with us. And sometimes,

I remember that feeling right after she died,

 

the feeling of my heart breaking

into pieces like an icicle

shattering against the ground in early spring,

 

and I never want to feel like that, ever again,

That’s why I don’t like to remember Kachan that much--

All I remember is sadness.”

 

UNDER THE BROKEN SKY is, above all, a breathtaking fictional survival story. Young readers who enjoy such tales will be undeterred by the setting, even if they are not typically fans of historical fiction.

 

When Natsu and Asa’s father is conscripted; a neighbor assumes informal guardianship of the sisters just in time for them to all face a desperate, forced migration.

 

The story is based on what took place in Manchuria at the end of WWII. In the face of the Soviet occupation, the Japanese who were living there sought to escape back to Japan. In the Afterword, the author explains how these people came to be living in Manchuria:

 

“In 1931, the Japanese government overtook the northern part of China and declared it an independent state called Manchukuo with the last emperor of China--Puyi--as the Kangde Emperor of Manchuria. The government of the newly founded Manchuria created a slogan, ‘Five Races Under One Union,’ and indeed, there were many races living in the country: the Mongolians, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Russians (who escaped the Russian Revolution of 1917), and many Europeans…

However, in reality, Manchukuo was a puppet state controlled by the Japanese government.

Japan at that time was suffering from three major issues: overpopulation, bad economy, and lack of natural resources. As a state policy, Japan encouraged its citizens--especially impoverished villages and second and third sons of farmers--to relocate to Manchuria and other occupied territories to provide much needed natural resources for the mainland.

 

At the time UNDER THE BROKEN SKY takes place, there were two million Japanese living in China and Manchuria. As a result of the conflict, 80,000 of the Manchurian Japanese civilians died.

 

UNDER THE BROKEN SKY is written as a verse novel, a form that gained a lot of attention when Karen Hesse’s OUT OF THE DUST won the Newbery Medal. In that story, the prose poetry format helped convey that Dust Bowl-era survival story by buffering the horror and highlighting the hope.

 

UNDER THE BROKEN SKY, another piece of historical fiction written in prose poetry, benefits in the same way. This style helps readers digest the horrors and danger surrounding the sisters as we root for them to survive while so many other characters--including their guardian--are perishing.

As an eldest child who was assigned responsibilities that my siblings never experienced, I relate to the seriousness and tenacity with which Natsu accepts and acts upon her father’s instructions that she somehow safely get herself and Asa back to Japan in his absence.

For those of us who are fans of historical fiction and of verse novels, this is a fully satisfying read.

Recommended by: Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA

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