“One morning toward the end of the summer they burned away my face…” This is the opening sentence of Dennis Bock's The Ash Garden. Surely this will rank as one of the most memorable first sentences in literature,
a sentence that grabs you and makes you want to read all the sentences that followed it. This
is not an easy book to review -- not that it isn’t well written and incredibly rich with historical facts and complex characters.
It is such a good book that one wants to do it justice.
Imagine if you will a story that offers three diverse perspectives on the bombing of Hiroshima. Anton Boll, a German scientist, contributes to the success of the A-Bomb at Los Alamos. Sophie, an Austrian Jew, sails on the St. Louis, bound for Cuba. Historical
note: the St. Louis was a ship carrying Jews who were fleeing Nazi Europe;
it was denied a port of entry by the U.S., Canada, Cuba and several other
countries). Sophie dreams of marrying any man who makes an offer and who can
provide her with a safe place – she meets Anton while she is in Camp L, a
refugee camp in Quebec. In a sense she marries two men: Anton before Hiroshima and Anton after Hiroshima. Emiko is the young Japanese girl who witnessed the Enola Gay drop the bomb on Hiroshima as she and her brother played in the stream near her home. It is through her that we get an eyewitness account of the devastation at Ground Zero and the excruciating pain she experiences.
Bock creates a story that brings these characters to life. His sense of time and place are amazing.
It's as though the reader walks with Anton through the makeshift hospital wards and witnesses the unimaginable agony of the Hiroshima survivors. I learned at a book reading by Bock that the passages from Anton’s manual on how to interrogate and evaluate the bomb victims are direct quotes from an actual manual used at Ground Zero in Hiroshima by the military and the American doctors. Chilling. Bock skillfully weaves fact with fiction to create a story that will change your perspective on what it means to be on both sides of the victor/victim fence. Anton spends the rest of his life speaking/lecturing “about the responsibility he felt for August 1945 as well as the pride [and] the need to dissolve the mythology of the bomb.” Sophie longs to know what happened to her family in Europe but she is too afraid to return.
Instead, she convinces herself that they will contact her.
Emiko’s story is both fascinating and painful. She is chosen by American doctors to participate in a series of surgeries in the United States. At first this seems too farfetched to be believable,
but a bit of research verifies Bock's scenario. It is a fact that 25 Hiroshima victims were brought to the United States for reconstructive surgery in 1955; they were referred to as “The Hiroshima Maidens.” The message
one comes away with is that there are many kinds of scars (emotional, physical, psychological) as well as numerous ways to cope. Bock presents three complex characters, each scarred, each coping with the horrors of that day in August in 1945. The Ash Garden isn’t about survival or recovery or resolution
-- it’s about keeping your sanity when your world has fallen apart. Powerful,
informative and beautifully written.