Published by Harper Collins 2023 | Historical fiction, Australian Author
It's hard to imagine that one woman could endure as much – and catalyse such a shift in the social fabric of Australia – as Nobuko Sakuramoto, known as Cherry Parker.
Not only did Cherry survive the decimation of her family's home and lives in Japan's Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped in August 1945 bringing an end to World War II, she also bore intense bigotry on her path to becoming the first Japanese "war bride" permitted to enter Australia after four years of political lobbying by her Australian husband Gordon Parker.
Cherry and Gordon's real-life story has been lovingly reimagined in At The Foot Of The Cherry Tree by author (and Cherry and Gordon's granddaughter) Alli Parker.
As Parker explains in her acknowledgement to her grandparents at the end of the novel, "This is a fictionalised version of your story, I know, but I kept the real, terrifying, heartbreaking and hopeful moments…. What you both did was bigger than just the two of you… You challenged thinking in Australia and I hope this novel will do the same."
Indeed, Cherry's arrival in Australia in 1952 paved the way for more than 600 other young Japanese women to be reunited with their husbands. The bulk of them had met after the surrender of Japan when the Australians were serving with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) - just as 18-year-old medic Gordon was when he befriended shy 16-year-old Cherry, a cleaner on his base, on the first day of his two years of service. They fell in love and eventually wed in 1948.
The many forces of post-war Japan and Australia that worked against the young lovers are brought to life in Parker’s moving account as it charts seven turbulent years, beginning in Melbourne with Gordon's palpable excitement to be finally old enough to enlist, coincidentally just one month before the bomb was dropped more than 8,000 kms away obliterating Cherry's life as she knew it, not too far from Kure where he’d be transferred about a year later.
Alongside the beauty of the blossoming relationship between the two young people, who gently helped each other to overcome their language and cultural differences, we are also confronted by the ugliness of the prevailing racism between Australian and Japanese people which had intensified during the years the nations were at war. The soldiers at Gordon's BCOF base were subject to strict “anti-fraternisation” rules, which forced many couples to hide their relationships and conduct secret weddings. Then, as Gordon's service came to an end, he discovered the "White Australia" policy wouldn't let Cherry into his country. He must leave Cherry, pregnant, behind while he returned to Australia to face the formidable task of convincing his initially unsupportive family, then a war-scarred and xenophobic government to help change their policy to allow her and their two daughters entry.
Although it would take another 23 years after Cherry's arrival for the racially restrictive policy to be renounced in 1973 after 72 years in force, the sympathetic media coverage of Gordon and Cherry's reunion, despite the ongoing community bigotry they endured, was a step in the right direction.
It's clear Alli Parker has supplemented the family narratives about her grandparents love story heard throughout her life with detailed research of the time to provide a full picture of what they experienced - from the colourful chaos of the markets and brothels near the army base, to the meagre rations of rice keeping local families alive, to the eerie landscape of the obliterated city of Hiroshima, and the hope emanating from each Sakura blossom.
It's an ambitious undertaking for a debut and is very worthy for the well-balanced historical insights it reveals.