It is difficult for anyone to fully comprehend what it feels like to be in war unless they’ve been through it themselves. To me, Alan Gratz’s book Grenade represents the turmoil, aggression, fear, survival instincts, and desperation of war quite well. The story takes place in WWII Okinawa, where the Japanese army is hoping to slow down the advancement of the American soldiers into Japan. The author’s afterword is worth a read to get more context too.
The plot shares perspectives between an American soldier named Ray, and Blood and Iron Student Corps soldier Hideki. Both are young men thrust into this brutal war. Hideki’s tale begins when his Student Corps are given two grenades; one is to kill as many Americans as possible and the other is to kill themselves. Hideki’s grenades become a strong symbol throughout the story. His first grenade is used (SPOILER AHEAD) and it takes Ray’s life. He contemplates using the second at numerous points in the story, but ultimately places it down before he surrenders. In doing so, he hopes to spare his life and his sister’s. His sister is his only remaining living relative, and finding her was his final promise to his dad before he died.
Through the story, first Ray and then Hideki, collect pictures of fallen soldiers with their family members. These represent the humanity lost from both sides. The Okinawan people were very much in the middle of this battle. They were used as sacrifices by the Japanese Army, and they became expendable to both sides fighting around them. Hideki took note many times of the fear that makes man a killing machine. It is kill or be killed. The photos are an important reminder that underneath these “killers” are someone’s brother, father, and son.
Also enmeshed in the story is Okinawan culture. Mubui is a term that to me is described as a person’s soul. At first, Hideki has an ancestor’s mubui attached to him which makes him cowardly and afraid. Throughout the story, Hideki conquers this cowardice by making strong choices for the survival of himself and of others. Ray’s mubui also attaches to Hideki, and he must make amends with Ray’s death in order to free his soul.
While stories about war are not normally top picks for me, this one was so well written. There is attention to detail and realism in the representation of both soldiers’ and civilians’ deaths. My recent visit to the Scholastic Book Summit gave me the early copy of Grenade. Before even receiving this book, two other people mentioned Gratz’s other book, Refugee. This author is getting good buzz, and I will definitely be looking to read Refugee soon.