Many are familiar with Theodore Taylor’s The Cay, his 1969 masterpiece on racial tension and harmony between two island-stranded foils. It’s famous generally, and often required reading in American high schools.
Thematically, Taylor’s 1995 The Bomb is arguably similar to The Cay; both examine the stark and minute struggles between two vastly different cultures in an island setting. Both address the unfair advantages of the more privileged character(s.)
Taylor’s presentation in The Bomb is quite contrary to The Cay’s though; The Cay has two characters, representing a general global relationship under a microscope. The Bomb has dozen’s of players, and explicitly portrays a prose version of a real-life international clash that directly changed the world.
The more epic leanings of The Bomb prompted some to view it as less nuanced, and therefore worse, than Taylor’s better-known masterpiece. Some also argued that the real world events that shape The Bomb give him a pre-written narrative to follow, and an easier job of plotting. It certainly is less nuanced, but The Bomb is a gorgeous tragedy in it’s own right. The real world events do provide a skeleton for Theodore’s writing to follow, but it may very well have made his world-building more difficult than with The Cay. He had more meticulous research to conduct this time, which also brings a stressful chore of deciding how to make a good novel of said research and how far from it to veer.
At the start, The Bomb recounts Japanese occupation of Bikini Atoll during WWII:
In the world Sorry knew best, his family lived, worked, laughed, sang, and prayed as if war didn’t exist, as if the world stopped at the entrance to the lagoon. Suddenly they were captives, lazy natives, kin to monkeys. The Japanese didn’t need to say it. The message was in their eyes: You are inferior. You are worthless.
And so we are introduced to Sorry, a Bikini native who’s young, innocent perspective shapes the telling of Bikini’s evacuation by U.S. forces for nuclear tests after The Second World War.
Sorry said thoughtfully, 'Uncle Abram, why is it that the Americans want to test bombs when the war is over? Isn’t the outside world at peace now?'
The Bomb was somewhat disparaged for being preachy, and it is preachy, perhaps even a little oversimplified. But it’s appropriate, as our child-protagonist thinks in the simple moral terms that most children do.
As an American, extremely fortunate just to live in a prosperous and powerful nation, The Bomb gave me a stark, valuable reality-check. Our position in the world is often held not only from our own enterprise and the expense of our own troops, but also at the expense of many who’d originally had nothing to do with us.
In the novel and reality, U.S. forces leave it up to the island leaders to vote on whether all the natives will vacate the island to a new home. The islanders are told that they’ll be able to return in a few years. This turns out to be untrue. Bikini natives and their families in 2018 are still unable to safely reside in Bikini Atoll again. Long-term nuclear explosion effects really weren’t fully known then. Taylor paints the likelihood though that the Americans knew more than they officially let on:
Sorry and Tara talked for a few minutes with Dr. Garrison. Then Tara said, 'Please tell us the truth. When do you think we can come back here?'
“Tell no one. There must be hope.” This line struck me. It’s not an original sentiment but it’s worth heavy consideration every time it’s expressed. What is the worth of hope when statistically there is little or none? When, if ever, is it right to knowingly give people misplaced hope? [SPOILERS] This issue was recently and famously portrayed in The Dark Knight. Batman decides to take the blame for D.A. Harvey Dent’s atrocities, convinced that the respect of the well-known lawyer is more valuable to Gotham than that of the mythic Dark Knight. [SPOILERS END]
Soon the 1108 began to pull back, going in a half circle as the water deepened. Most of the villagers were lining the port rail on the top deck. Sorry looked around through a glaze of tears and saw that even the older men were fighting emotion. The hurt gripped chests and throats. Hands were held to lips.
Excerpts like the one above somberly reflect the bleak circumstances of the islanders as they vacate the only home they’ve ever known. Another passage miniaturizes what Taylor is doing to us as readers; he’s making things plain so that we better understand. Tara, a local teacher, has to do this after unsuccessfully explaining the specifics of nuclear bombs:
She saw that the class was lost already and put her hand to her forehead.
The Americans did have some arguable reasonable motives to consider. They’d just took part in defeating two tyrannical regimes that very well could have taken over the world if not for the partial help of the atomic bomb. The horrors of the last World War and the brinksmanship of the new Cold War necessitated that the U.S. excel technologically to maintain a safe global position. The bomb had to be tested somewhere. Right?
Somewhere, seemingly the middle of nowhere, can be someone’s entire life and world. Bikini Atoll was that for young Sorry. As in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, the fog of war is simultaneously thickened and cleared up a little through children’s eyes in The Bomb.
Sorry had been to Lomlik dozens of times to pick coconuts, Jonjen many more times than that. Jonjen looked around their land. He said 'The white men always seem to spoil whatever they touch.'