CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 14 . . . . December 9, 2016
Following the death of his great grandfather, Christian is confronted with some unexpected truths. He discovers that his great grandfather, William Deaver, was actually a part of the Manhattan Project, helping to build the first atomic weapon that was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Christian's most prominent memories, however, do not account for this. He remembers a jovial older man who liked to play pranks and act as goalie in games of street hockey with the great grandchildren. Even though his family is reluctant to answer his questions, Christian is determined to find answers. As such, he convinces his school's Travel Club to visit Japan for their school trip. Christian's narrative is contrasted with that of Yuko, a young girl who, in 1945, was dealing with the aftermath of the atomic blast over Hiroshima.
There is some very interesting historical content in And Then the Sky Exploded, and readers will find themselves introduced to some of the background of the Manhattan Project and the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, information which they may not have otherwise been introduced to. That being said, a lot of this information is introduced in didactic moments without being integrated smoothly into the text. Christian, for example, writes himself a report from online sources for no purpose other than his own education, but, as he is barely 14 years of age in the narrative, I found myself a bit incredulous as the authenticity of such an act. This brings me to the overall narrative voice, especially in the sections dedicated to Christian. I did not find his voice believable. There were moments where he sounded like an adult (as in the example above) and other moments in which he sounded 12 at best. The inconsistency of voice made the narrative frustrating to follow at times.
There were other moments within the text that made me question the narrator as well as the author. For instance, at one point, Christian notes his height, but for some reason, the metric conversion in centimetres is featured immediately following. I'm not clear as to the purpose of this conversion, but it does cause a momentary disconnect. More than this, however, I was most disappointed by the weight-insensitive language used at various points within the text to describe Christian's nemesis and her mother. Lorelei and her mother are consistently described in ways that can easily be interpreted as fat-shaming: "If Lorelei Faber was a boy she'd be the school bully. In fact, she'd be Donald Trump. But because she's a big, overweight, round-faced nasally voiced rich kid, Lorelei does her hurting with words, not fists." She is also described as having "jiggly jowls." Now, this may simply be one description, but the other terrifying person in the narrative is Lorelei's mother, who is described as follows: "She was Lorelei with thirty additional years and one hundred additional pounds. She had a chest shaped like (and the size of) two Christmas turkeys. As she rose, she turned, giving me a view of her never-ending backside." These descriptions are not only insensitive as to weight, but they seem to be an attempt to poke fun at those with more weight. The description of Christian's "larger" friend Carson, however overweight, is described much more forgivingly and in good humour.
There is also a football game that takes up many pages and seems to have no relation to the plot or the former or future revelations of the characters. Perhaps the author was attempting to add some action to the text in order to entice younger male readers to read the book, but, to me, it feels unnecessary and superfluous to the overall plot.
The inclusion of Yuko's story is also interesting, but not entirely or seamlessly integrated into the overall narrative, at least until the second part of the book. Her inclusion seems to exist only because Christian desires an Anne Frank style narrative in order to actually "feel something" about the hundreds of thousands of deaths related to the Hiroshima bombing. Her presence in the book is almost entirely so that Christian can have his moment of catharsis. While I can somewhat understand this desire for a more personal connection, the connection within the novel is not as sensitively examined I would have hoped, making Christian much less likeable or relatable in the end. The connection between Yuko and Christian does eventually come together in a satisfying way, though I don't feel that it fully makes up for all of the issues earlier in the narrative.
I wanted to be be able to recommend the story more wholeheartedly, but the language around weight and the didactic portions of the text make And Then the Sky Exploded less remarkable that I would have hoped.
Recommended with Reservations.
Rob Bittner is a graduate of the MA in Children's Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at Simon Fraser University.
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