The short story “Autumn Gardening”, by Siu Wai Anderson, gives students a new way to understand “perspective”. Students in the United States are usually given a very Western view of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima: the bombs helped us win the war. However, in Japan, there were over a hundred thousand people who were killed by these bombs and scores more injured, some for the rest of their lives. The United States showcased its might in an action that did bring World War II to an end; however, it was a decision made with a mighty cost. This is probably why President Truman is said to have agonized over it. This unique perspective of a survivor of one of the bombs is meant to point out to readers that there is always more than one side to a story.
One crisp November morning, in New England, Mariko Abe receives a letter from her dear friend Mitsuye. Mitsuye writes to Mariko that she is a member of a group of hibakusha, or Japanese survivors of the Bombs. They have asked her to speak at the following anniversary event, which will be televised. As Mariko reads, she is very detached, happy that her friend has been asked to do something so prestigious, but thinking that Mitsuye is much braver than she is to get up and talk about it. So, when Mitsuye asks Mariko to join her, Mariko freezes.
Mariko flashes back to when she first met Mitsuye on farms in the San Joaquin Valley in California. They had both been sent back to Japan by their families for “good” Japanese educations, and so they were both in Hiroshima the day the bomb was dropped. Mitsuye had married a restaurant owner; Mariko had received training as a nurse. Mariko was two miles away from the bomb when it dropped, and while she survived, tiny slivers of glass embedded themselves in the skin on her face. These and other health problems began to arise as Mariko got older, including progressive asthma. However, she fears telling her doctors about her survivor status because she’s afraid she’ll lose her health insurance.
Mariko’s family had been interned in a camp in California, and the anti-Japanese sentiments after the war shook her. Her family moved to Boston, and after her parents died, she settled near her brother Paul’s house there. Not long after moving to New England, Mariko learned that Mitsuye had also moved east, and was living in Queens, New York. They quickly renewed their friendship. Mitsuye had developed leukemia as a result of the effects of the Bomb, and her husband had died of radiation poisoning.
Mariko struggles with the request in Mitsuye’s letter. Mariko still feels lingering guilt over having to “play God” while searching through the rubble of the Bomb. There were some patients she had to leave because their injuries were too serious, and she was working with quickly-depleting supplies from the hospital. Mariko remembers trying to make her decisions based on what she knew, but the survivor guilt lingers nonetheless, even all of these years later.
Mariko returns to Mitsuye’s letter and the phrase, “We can speak for the dead” jumps out at her. She had never thought of it that way before. Mariko, who had felt empty and alone since the events of the Bomb had scarred her mentally and physically, wonders if she’s finally found a purpose for herself. She wonders if that’s why she survived, so she can speak for the dead.
Mariko returns to her gardening, thinking to herself that maybe she can speak for the victims she tried to help and lost, and for those she left behind. She seems to have found a new resolve by the end of the story.