Lois Lowry’s Ode to the Fallen in World War II

By Lois Lowry
Read by the author

Hang on to those old home movies: You never know what they might hold. In 1980, years before she gained renown for her Newbery Medal-winning novels for young readers, “Number the Stars” and “The Giver,” Lois Lowry was visiting her parents’ house when her father showed her aging film reels from her childhood. He was thinking of throwing them away, but Lowry’s preservationist impulse prevailed, and she had the movies transferred to the then-burgeoning medium of the VHS tape. With guests over one night, she popped the tape into a VCR and they watched images Lowry hadn’t seen in decades. In one sequence, she is at a beach in her native Hawaii.

“Wait,” a friend said, interrupting. “Pause it.” They rewatched the scene. In the distance was the U.S.S. Arizona, the battleship that the Japanese sank in their attack on Pearl Harbor just one year later, on Dec. 7, 1941.

“The room of people fell silent,” Lowry recalls in “On the Horizon,” her first self-recorded audiobook. “We were no longer watching a small story of a little girl playing with a shovel in 1940. We were watching a huge piece of history.” The nearly 1,200 men aboard that ship in the background of her childhood would soon be dead: “I am still haunted by that.”

Anchored by her musings, Lowry’s plaintive, compassionate memoir honors the legacy of those lost in the attack that precipitated the United States’ entry into World War II. The author takes us beyond the staggering death toll (in all, more than 2,300 Americans) to tell us about individual sailors and Marines. It’s a short work, designated for middle-grade listeners, but it’s rich in details, rendered in unfussy verse, that offer a visceral sense of some of those who were killed.

Curtis Haas was among the musicians on the Arizona who died. “A handsome kid: a clown, a flirt,” Lowry says. “Each band member was, like him, such a source of family pride. Curt was young, hardworking, trim; 21 the day he died.”

Isaac Campbell Kidd, commanding officer of the Arizona, died too. “Admiral Kidd ran to the bridge that morning in December,” Lowry says. “His Naval Academy ring was found melted and fused to the mast. It is not an imaginary thing, a symbol of devotion so vast.”

For a first-time audiobook narrator, Lowry is a natural. Her plain-spoken delivery is entrancing. There’s an elegiac cadence to her sentences, and you can hear her smile when she remembers the soft Hawaiian words of her youth, such as the fish that’s spelled just the way it sounds: humuhumunukunukuapua‘a.

Lowry’s book is not simply about the victims of Pearl Harbor. She lived in Tokyo as a child (her father served on hospital ships for the U.S. Army), and her sympathy extends to the more than 80,000 Japanese who were killed by the American atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. One of them was 3-year-old Shinichi Tetsutani, who was playing with his tricycle on the morning that the Enola Gay airplane released its bomb, code-named “Little Boy.” “When his parents found him, he was still gripping the handlebar,” Lowry says. “They buried him in the garden, and with him, they buried his red tricycle.”

Shinji Mikamo survived the bombing, but once he was able to walk again, two months later, he discovered his father had not. “But he found, in the ruins, his father’s watch,” Lowry says. It was stuck at 8:15 — the same time Pfc. Frank Cabiness’s watch had stopped in the inferno at Pearl Harbor, four years earlier. Suffering and grief know no boundaries, Lowry suggests. We are all connected in loss.

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