The Sky We Shared

By Shirley Reva Vernick. Cinco Puntos Press, 2022. 256 pages. $22.95/hardcover or eBook. Recommended for ages 11–17.

In this book, the author weaves facts of a little-known World War II tragedy on U.S. soil into a compelling novel for young readers. Through alternating voices, Nellie in the United States and Tamiko in Japan reveal personal uncertainties, hardships, and losses endured by many children during wartime.

In rural Oregon, Nellie studies the stars, worries about her neighbor Joey when his brother is killed in action, and yearns for Pa to come home from the Air Force. She and her classmates ration food and conduct salvage drives to help the United States win the war. Nellie has no clue that the “falling star” she sees the night before the minister’s picnic is actually a firebomb intended to kill her friends.

In southern Japan, Tamiko struggles with physical disability, isolation, and fear when her brother Kyo is drafted into the army. Suffering from hunger and cold, she prays Kyo will make it back from combat. When the army conscripts Tamiko and her classmates to help Japan win the war, they labor for months, pasting huge sheets of paper together. The girls have no idea they are working on the secret Fu-Go Project, building “wind-ship weapons” to be filled with hydrogen and loaded with explosives. The military designed the balloons to cross the Pacific on the jet stream and kill people in the United States.

This well-researched story is based on real wartime events in the United States and Japan. On May 5, 1945, in remote Bly, Ore., curious kids at a picnic came across a mysterious balloon in the forest. When they touch it, the firebomb explodes, killing a pregnant minister’s wife and five young people. The author honors the dead by using their real names in this historically accurate fictional account. Vernick has a passion for research, and writes convincingly about events that touched my own life. I was five years old and living in Portland when this tragic news reverberated through our community. Six innocent civilians died on Oregon soil, not far from us. Would our home be next?

In this book, readers come to appreciate the hopes, fears, and wartime deprivations suffered by each girl. Nellie is frightened and confused. Tamiko is hungry, lonely, and scared. The author treats them with equal empathy, taking a gentle look at youthful mistakes, temptations, and complaints set against the backdrop of government propaganda. She also frames their traumas as opportunities for self-discovery.

I commend The Sky We Shared to young Friends who wish to gain greater understanding of historic “enemies” and to deepen cross-cultural sympathy for outcasts. First-day school teachers will appreciate bonus chapters describing little-known aspects of WWII history. In this era of fake news, Vernick’s closing questions about racist propaganda may spark timely discussions:

  • How do you think you would have reacted in a similar situation?
  • Can you identify any propaganda-like messages you are exposed to in your own environment?
  • How might you verify the “facts” in these messages?

Judith Wright Favor is a great-grandmother, author, retreat guide, and soul companion. Expectant, waiting worship with Claremont Meeting in Southern California nourishes her soul.

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