Review of In a Flash

In a Flash
by Donna Jo Napoli
Intermediate    Lamb/Random    400 pp.    g
1/21    978-1-101-93413-5    $16.99
Library ed.  978-1-101-93414-2    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-1-101-93415-9    $9.99

Narrator Simona is eight years old in 1940, and her younger sister five, when they leave their home outside Rome for Tokyo — their father has been hired as chef at the Italian embassy. The girls must quickly learn a new language and new customs — and although they come to love Japan, as Westerners their friends are few. As WWII approaches and then intensifies, life in Tokyo deteriorates, with food and clothing scarcities; classmates’ brothers and fathers lost to war; school concerned with propaganda rather than learning. Then, in 1943, Italy surrenders — and Simona’s family is now the enemy. From here, the novel becomes a survival story. The girls are separated from their father and sent to a starvation-level internment camp; escape and are rescued by a household of anti-war activists; they return, after the women’s home is raided, to Tokyo, where they find refuge with a blind washerwoman; and finally, fatefully, end up in a Catholic mission in Hiroshima. Throughout, what saves them are Simona’s strength and determination but also the sisters’ assimilation into and respect for Japanese culture: at the camp, their politeness earns them life-saving tidbits from the kitchen; needing to buy train tickets back to Tokyo, they speak the language so well they pass for Japanese. Simona’s eight-year-old voice is the same as her adult voice (the novel ends with a final chapter set in 1965), but readers may overlook this quibble as they immerse themselves in Napoli’s story, told with immediacy, compassion, and nuance. A note describing the author’s research and an extensive bibliography are appended.

From the January/February 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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