Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes

by Eleanor Coerr

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1775

While living in Japan, author Eleanor Coerr heard about twelve-year-old Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died in 1955 of leukemia resulting from radiation poisoning. Sadako’s family had been living in Hiroshima when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on the city in 1945. Sadako’s personal letters had already been collected and published in a book entitled Kokeshi, so Coerr decided to write Sadako’s story for American children.

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On the morning of August 6, 1954, eleven-year-old Sadako Sasaki runs out into the street to greet the cloudless, sunny sky. She deems the pleasant weather a sign of good luck. Inside the house, Sadako’s younger sister and two brothers are still asleep, so Sadako awakens her elder brother, Masahiro. He crawls out of bed once he smells the bean soup cooking in the kitchen. Soon Sadako’s sister, Mitsue, and younger brother, Eiji, are also awake. Sadako rushes into the kitchen and pleads with her mother for the family to hurry so they can go to the carnival. Her mother scolds her for calling the event a carnival—August 6 is Peace Day, a day of reverence and remembrance for those who died when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Sadako’s father reminds her that her own grandmother died on that terrible day. Sadako says that she prays for her grandmother’s spirit every morning, and the Sasaki family then gathers around the altar to pray for Oba chan and give thanks for the blessings in their life. Mr. Sasaki also prays that his family be protected from leukemia, “the atom bomb disease,” because even though the bomb had been dropped nine years earlier, the radiation that had filled the air remains inside people’s bodies for a long time.

Back at the breakfast table, Sadako finishes eating her meal before everyone else, and she and Mitsue clean the kitchen. Sadako must sit and wait patiently for her family to get ready to leave the house. While she sits, a spider walks across the room. Sadako cups the spider in her hands and releases it outside for good luck.

When the Sasakis leave home to attend the Peace Day memorial event, Sadako runs ahead to meet her best friend, Chizuko. The girls race up the street, and Mr. Sasaki feels proud that Sadako is such a strong, fast runner. Inside the entrance to the Peace Park, many photographs of dead and dying people and the ruined city of Hiroshima line the walls. Sadako does not want to look at the horrifying images, and she tells Chizuko that she remembers the prickly heat from the blast. Chizuko says that Sadako cannot possibly remember that day because she was just a baby, but Sadako insists that she remembers. The mayor and priests give memorial speeches, and hundreds of white doves are released to fly free. Sadako thinks that the birds represent the spirits of the dead. During the ceremonies, Sadako visits the market stalls. She loves seeing all the foods and items for sale. However, she does not like to see the whitish scars on the victims of the atomic bomb. In the evening, families write the names of relatives who died from the atomic bomb on paper lanterns. They put candles inside the lanterns and release them onto the Ohta River. Sadako thinks the day truly has brought good luck.

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Early in the fall, Sadako runs home and announces that her class has chosen her to race in the relay team on Field Day. She sees this opportunity as a step toward making the track team the following year in junior high school, which is what she wants more than anything else. At school every day, Sadako practices for the race, and her speed surprises all. On Field Day, Mr. Sasaki tells Sadako to do her best and that her family will be proud of her. Sadako puts her nerves aside and runs so hard that her heart thumps painfully in her chest. At the finish line, she feels strangely dizzy and barely hears someone shout that her team has won the race. She shakes her head, and the dizziness goes away.

All winter, Sadako trains so she can make the junior high school team, but the dizziness often returns, especially after a long run. Sadako does not tell anyone—not even Chizuko—about the dizziness. Instead, she prays that her ailment will simply go away on its own. On New Year’s Eve, Sadako wishes away the dizzy spells. The following morning, the Sasaki family joins many people in visiting the shrines. Mrs. Sasaki dresses in her best silk flowered kimono. She promises to buy one for Sadako as soon as the family has enough money. At home, Sadako looks at the good luck symbols her father has placed above the door and thinks that nothing can possibly go wrong.

For the next few weeks, Sadako feels strong and healthy, but her luck ends one day in February when she is running in the school yard. After a dizzy spell, Sadako sinks to the ground, and a teacher rushes to help. Sadako cannot stand up, so the teacher sends Mitsue home to get Mr. Sasaki. He takes Sadako to the Red Cross Hospital. Sadako is afraid because the hospital has a section to treat patients with the atomic bomb disease. Once inside the examining room, Dr. Numata gives Sadako an X-ray and asks her many questions. In conference with the doctor, the Sasakis learn that Sadako has leukemia and that she will need to be hospitalized. Everyone promises to visit Sadako while she is in the hospital. Once alone, Sadako buries her head in her pillow and cries.

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The next morning, Sadako wakes and realizes that the previous day was not just a bad dream. Nurse Yasunaga comes into the room to give Sadako her shots; she tells Sadako that getting shots is part of being in the hospital and that she will get used to the pain. That afternoon, Chizuko visits Sadako and brings her a present. On the bed, Chizuko lays several pieces of paper and a pair of scissors. Sadako is puzzled, so Chizuko proceeds to cut a large square from a piece of golden paper. She folds it into a beautiful crane. Chizuko reminds Sadako about the old story of the crane and that if a sick person folds one thousand cranes, the gods will grant the person good health. Chizuko hands the golden crane to Sadako—this is her first one. Sadako is moved by the kindness of her best friend and begins to work with the paper to fold more cranes. Some are a little lopsided, but it is a start. Later Masahiro visits to bring Sadako her school work and promises to hang all Sadako’s cranes from the ceiling. When Sadako tells him that she plans to make one thousand cranes, Masahiro cries that she tricked him, but he says he will keep his promise. He hangs the ten cranes she has made, but leaves the golden crane on the bedside table near Sadako. After dinner, the family visits Sadako and is awed by her cranes.

Now Sadako’s family and friends save pieces of paper for Sadako to make cranes. Sadako thinks the cranes are working because the next few months have days when she feels well again. She knows that some patients recover from leukemia and hopes that she will recover, too. When she is well, she keeps busy doing homework, writing letters, playing games, and folding cranes. The cranes number more than three hundred.

Eventually, the leukemia saps Sadako’s energy, and her days are filled with constant pain and dizziness. Often all she can do is sit by the window. One day, Nurse Yasunaga wheels Sadako outside to get some air and sun. On the porch, Sadako meets Kenji, another boy who is hospitalized with leukemia. He is lonely. Both his parents are dead and his aunt, who cares for him, can only manage to visit him once a week. Kenji knows that he will soon die. Back in her room, Sadako makes a big crane out of her prettiest paper and sends it to Kenji. One day, Kenji is no longer outside, and Nurse Yasunaga tells Sadako that Kenji passed away and now his spirit is free. Sadako believes that she will die next, but the nurse tries to get Sadako to keep up her spirits.

By June the rainy season is well under way, and Sadako loses her appetite. Sadako’s class sends her a Kokeshi doll to cheer her up, and Mrs. Sasaki brings all of Sadako’s favorite foods to the hospital. Sadako’s swollen gums prevent her from enjoying the food, and Sadako is sad because her family has gone through so much trouble for her. Masahiro leaves behind a crane that Eiji has made for Sadako—there are now more than five hundred in the flock.

Near the end of July, Sadako feels like she is getting better, and Dr. Numata is pleased with her progress. He allows her to go home for a visit to celebrate O Bon, the biggest holiday of the year. Many friends and family members come to the Sasakis’ home to visit and celebrate, but by the end of the week, Sadako is again pale and weak. From her bed, she hears her parents quarrel, and she is happy to return to the quiet peace of the hospital.

Sadako speaks of her death, and her parents try to cheer her up and encourage her to complete her flock of cranes. The nurse and doctor give her shots and blood transfusions daily, yet Sadako grows weaker. One day, the family arrives, and Mrs. Sasaki gives Sadako a beautiful silk kimono she has made. Sadako tries on the kimono, and it is like old times again. Before bed, Sadako only has enough strength to make one crane—six hundred and forty-four. It is the last crane Sadako ever makes.

Sadako thinks often about her impending death, and she tells her family not to worry about her. As her life slips away, she looks up at all the cranes Masahiro has hung above her bed. To her, the cranes are alive and flying toward their freedom. Sadako sighs and closes her eyes to sleep. She never wakes up.

Sadako Sasaki dies on October 25, 1955. After her death, her classmates gather together and finish folding three hundred and fifty-six paper cranes to complete her flock. The one thousand cranes are buried with Sadako in honor of her bravery, her strength, and her belief in good luck.

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