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Free Study Guide: Hiroshima by John Hersey - Notes / Book Summary

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LITERARY CRITICISM: HIROSHIMA BY JOHN HERSEY - BOOK SUMMARY

CHAPTER FOUR: PANIC GRASS AND FEVERFEW

Summary

This chapter discusses the main characters’ fates from 12 days after the bomb fell to a full year later. In this time period, we see the longer-term effects that the bomb had on their physical beings. All of them suffered some degree of radiation sickness in the months following their atomic exposure, mirroring the widespread experience of other bomb survivors. Doctors in the city slowly came to understand the disease: The first stage involved the body’s absorption of massive radiation. This explained the mysterious deaths of many seemingly uninjured people in the first hours after the bombing. Those who lived through this phase experienced nausea, fever, headaches and diarrhea for several days. The second stage came about two weeks after exposure: Hair fell out, the patient got diarrhea, and high fevers were common. Blood disorders appeared a month after the bombing. A steady and high fever and a white blood count falling too low meant the patient would not survive. In the third stage, the body compensated for its problems by increasing the white blood cell count, but many died of complications. Burns usually healed with deep scar tissue on the top, called keloid tumors. Some patients suffered such radiation sickness for a matter of weeks, others for months upon months.

The chapter also briefly describes the U.S. occupational government’s plan for rebuilding the city. Since Hiroshima had been an important military command post, there was now no clear vision for the city’s purpose, and the planning finally became disorganized and random. Also, Japanese scientists were able to understand much of the atomic bomb’s function and effects by studying the ruins; yet the Americans remained extremely guarded with their supposed atomic secrets.

Father Kleinsorge had perhaps the worst sickness of the six main characters. He walked around Hiroshima and performed errands 12 days after the bombing, and by evening was exhausted. His wounds then opened wider and were inflamed. After a couple weeks of faintness and fever, his colleagues sent him to the Catholic International Hospital in Tokyo. He remained there for over three months, suffering high fevers, a low white blood cell count, and anemia. He enjoyed being a curiosity in Tokyo as one of only a few atom bomb patients, compared to one of thousands who were ill in Hiroshima. When he returned to Hiroshima, the Jesuits had built another mission house and purchased a simple structure for a chapel. His doctors had ordered him to nap for two hours each day, but he found that difficult with so much pressing work. By August he was forced to return to the hospital in Tokyo for a month’s recuperation.

Mrs. Nakamura, living in Kobe with her sister-in-law, lost all of her hair within a few weeks of the bombing and was bedridden with nausea along with her younger daughter. Curiously, her older daughter and son felt fine. Mrs. Nakamura soon heard a rumor that the atomic bomb had emitted a poison in Hiroshima, which made the city uninhabitable for seven years. This changed her former passivity about the bomb’s morality into outrage at America. But after Japanese physicists carefully studied the radiation levels in the city, they determined that there was no lingering danger to humans. This greatly relieved Mrs. Nakamura, especially since it meant she could recover the sewing machine she had left behind. Still sick but unable to afford a doctor, she began to feel better just by continuing to rest. She heard about rustic shacks being rented in Hiroshima and moved there with the cash from her wartime bonds and savings. Her money was gone by the following summer, however, and she was torn as to what she should do.


Mr. Tanimoto, too, became mysteriously sick a few weeks after the bomb fell. A nurse diagnosed him with mild radiation disease and prescribed injections of vitamin B1. He rested for a total of two months, trying to eat as much as possible and using herbs to control his high fever. When he returned to Hiroshima, he set up a tent for worship. He became friends with Father Kleinsorge but envied the Jesuits for their material resources. A year after the bombing, Mr. Tanimoto felt pride in how he and his community had weathered the disaster, and wrote to an American friend about the bravery of many who died. He described how several people he knew, when faced with certain death, chose to honor the Emperor and die for the Emperor.

Miss Sasaki continued to be moved from crowded hospital to crowded hospital, until she landed at the Red Cross Hospital back in Hiroshima. Shocked to see the city’s devastation for the first time, she found the fresh vegetation covering burned out buildings and trees very strange. The bomb had stimulated the underground organs of greenery, and the city was indeed covered in new plants, among them panic grass and feverfew. Dr. Sasaki became her doctor at the Red Cross Hospital, and focused on nourishing her and lowering her fever, since he had no equipment with which to put her leg in a cast. At the end of October, he made several incisions in her leg to drain the pus. Meanwhile, Miss Sasaki’s spirits fell and she wondered about her fiancée who neglected to come and see her. After some visits from Father Kleinsorge, Miss Sasaki became open to the Catholic faith, and by summer decided to convert. She found hope in her budding faith and she improved physically.

Dr. Sasaki was overworked, sleeping only six hours per night at the hospital, and had lost twenty pounds from his small frame. Medical equipment remained inadequate for six months, consisting entirely of small donations from other cities. Dr. Sasaki’s appetite stayed low but he regained some semblance of normal life, even marrying in March.

Dr. Fujii went to live in the summerhouse of a friend, which lay on the banks of the Ota River. His injuries improved and he even found the strength to treat the basic wounds of other survivors living nearby. He encountered bad luck, however, when a flood carried off that summerhouse and he was forced to flee up the mountain to a peasant’s home. Other Hiroshima survivors and doctors researching their strange symptoms drowned in this flood. Dr. Fujii stayed with the peasant for a few days, until he heard of a clinic for sale in a suburb of Hiroshima. He rebuilt a successful practice and enjoyed entertaining members of the U.S. occupational forces in the evenings.

Notes

The strange title for this chapter, “Panic Grass and Feverfew,” is derived from two of the many types of plants that spring up to cover Hiroshima’s ruins soon after the bombing. The bomb stimulated the underground organs of vegetation, and within a month of the disaster, fresh greenery covers fallen buildings, ruined houses, and even charred trees. Miss Sasaki sees this phenomenon and understandably gets a strange feeling. The juxtaposition of new life, even plant life, with dead buildings and human ashes is striking and eerie. However, it symbolizes how life must go on for the survivors of Hiroshima, and how they, too, quickly return to living even after so much is destroyed. The chapter title is also a play-on-words with the symptoms of radiation sickness that most of the main characters are experiencing. A high fever is one of the most common symptoms suffered by Hiroshima survivors, and some of the characters experience mild panic when faced with the financial hardships, physical limitations, and lack of accurate information that plague their post-bomb lives.

This chapter depicts the main characters facing the hard task of finally rebuilding their lives, after the initial devastation is behind them. In the year following their personal and community catastrophe, each continues to be affected by the bombing, some more seriously than others. Perhaps the most well off, financially and physically, is Dr. Fujii. Yet even he meets further misfortune. This reminds the reader that simply because they survive such a monumental trauma does not mean that the characters are blessed with easy lives afterward. Life continues as it would have otherwise, involving both fortunate and unfortunate circumstances.

Dr. Fujii’s misfortune is that he is flooded out of the home he was staying in as a guest. The house lands in the river and is washed away. This is ironic since he lost his private clinic when it, also, landed in a river from the impact of the atomic bomb. Also, in this same tragic flood, numerous bomb patients and doctors researching their problems were drowned. By pointing out this fact, Hersey is emphasizing the point that life holds no special graces even for courageous survivors; it continues to be a trying experience.

This chapter begins to mention the city’s thoughts on the ethics of the bomb, which the author narrates more fully in the final chapter. Many in Hiroshima are neutral in their moral judgment about the use of the atomic bomb. Along with their indifference, they also hesitate to think about it very much at all. The author speculates that this may be due to their fear of and trauma from the bomb; they prefer to forget their ordeal altogether. The reason may also have come from the Japanese psyche of being resigned to hardships, expressed as “shikataga nai,” or “oh well, it can’t be helped.” This originates from the Buddhist belief that emptying oneself of worldly thoughts, both good and bad, leads to understanding and contentment. Some people, however, harbor a deep hatred for America for what it has done. Dr. Sasaki is one character who expresses anger at the Americans. However, the indifference on the part of most of the main characters and Hiroshima as a whole is a significant cultural element in the book.


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