D-Day: Love Day. Also, Easter Sunday and April Fool’s Day, 1945. Company E of the 1st Marines has made the landing on Okinawa unopposed. They can’t believe their good fortune: a “stay of execution,” as it were. [Sledge 187]
Making their way cautiously across the empty landscape, the men of Easy Company come across a farmhouse, abandoned by all but a single pig, snuffling in the muck. The soldiers plead with their sergeant to let them butcher it and cook it up. Countermanding his first order, the sergeant agrees. Hard Luck Lineker–so named because he took a bullet in the butt on Peleliu only to recover in time to get sent to Okinawa–scrambled over the fence to execute the pig when–Pak!–a sniper’s bullet struck him in the back. He fell face-first in the muck. Hard Luck, indeed.
Thirty pages into the novel, Grenade, and Alan Gratz had me hooked. As in vintage Larry McMurtry, a colorfully named secondary character falls victim to the blindness of chance, setting an action-packed plot in motion.
Later in the book, as the close calls and brushes with disaster build up, I wondered if perhaps the plot were too tightly packed. Were all these encounters necessary?
On close review, they almost all were–and are. Gratz’s novel is finely crafted with an impressive attention to recurring details and threaded themes.
Grenade is told in two voices, one Okinawan, one American. Hideki is barely fourteen (the same as Rickenbacker when he lost his father and went to work fulltime!) and a recent inductee into the Okinawan Blood and Iron Student Corps. But at his class graduation, with American ship-born bombs going off in the distance, Hideki burns “hot with shame” for feeling fear.  He is well acquainted with this shame, for he has been teased often by his classmates. Cowardice is his destiny, brought on by the actions of his ancestor centuries before. Shigitomo surrendered to the Japanese without a fight leaving a curse upon the first-born son of every third generation of his descendants.
Ray is old enough to be a Marine, but only barely. At eighteen, he’s as green as a leaf bud in May. Love Day, the opening of Operation Iceberg, will be his first day under fire, and he feels “weak” and “shaky” at the thought.  Unlike his battle-hardened comrades, Ray feels a concern for the civilian Okinawans they eventually encounter. Coming from different worlds, these two protagonists share a heightened sensitivity and an outsider point of view.
The pig incident serves other purposes besides grabbing the reader’s attention. It introduces us to actual combat–the tension, the fatal consequences, and also the sounds: Thwack! Pak! Chu-chu-chung! Chu-chu-chu-chu-chung! Pa-kow! KA-THOOM! It plays a key role in character development, too, even if indirectly. As the only farm boy in the company, Ray leads the eventual butchering of the pig and, after the meal, earns his Marine nickname: Barbecue. Moreover, when the sniper turns out to be a twelve-year-old Okinawan boy, we experience with Ray the scrambled moral calculus of this war. Who is the enemy? What is right and wrong? This surprising scene, which starts almost comically, sets in motion the unavoidable hardening of Ray’s heart. And there is more. (See below.)
“God help me, I’m getting used to it!” Ray thinks a couple chapters and several encounters with the enemy later–and soon after having killed his first man.  A couple chapters after that, he shoots Okinawan civilians and realizes, to his horror, through the narrator, “In just a few awful seconds, he had become the monster these people were so afraid of.” The narrator adds, in light of backstory recently revealed: “More of a monster than his father had ever been.”  A photo received from his mother in the previous chapter stirred memories of his father whose violent anger he was only now beginning to understand. That day his father attacked him after Ray had tried to execute the pig, the second gunshot had triggered a kind of post-traumatic flashback. If his father was a monster–and at times he was–Ray understood it was because of his experience in the First World War. Now, in the Second World War, he felt himself becoming a monster, too. The pig butchering scene becomes a rich vehicle by which Gratz tours the reader through Ray’s back story.
The climax for Ray comes in the battle of Kakazu Ridge when a group of Okinawans, hands raised, march up the slope toward E Company’s line on the ridge. Ray’s gaze focuses on the woman in a blue kimono bearing a baby in her arms–and a string of dynamite strapped around her waist. In the ensuing confusion, Ray’s unit makes a disorderly retreat. Stumbling and sliding down the ridge, Ray is a whirl of emotion: “He just knew he never wanted to see another Japanese soldier as long as he lived.” 
Hideki’s hardening is, understandably, slower in coming. He is younger. He flees from his unit at the first suicidal encounter with the enemy, without a proper uniform or weapon (though he does carry two grenades, one of breakable ceramic). In his aimless flight he trips over the dead body of his schoolmaster and recovers the fallen pictures of the Emperor Principal Kojima had been trying to protect. He finds his father, sitting wounded in the family tomb, and stays by him in his death. But the truly inciting event is his slide down a mud-slicked slope into a mire of writhing maggots. Hideki is so disgusted he pulls off all his clothes in an effort to escape them. It is a shocking scene.
But not far-fetched. E. B. Sledge in his memoir of Okinawa mentions the abundance of maggots at least three times. He says, “If a marine slipped down the back slope of a muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting. I saw more than one man lose his footing and slip and slide all the way to the bottom only to stand up horror-stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings, and the like. Then he and a buddy would shake or scrape them away with a piece of ammo box or a knife blade.”  Hideki had neither buddy nor knife, so he stripped. In the two-and-a-half-month battle, maggots were rife because of the ubiquity of decomposing bodies swallowed by the mud. Gratz elides this graphic detail–but, after all, his is a children’s book.
In Gratz’s novel, the maggots are not used to underscore the putrid degradation of war as in Sledge’s memoir. They allow the author to have Hideki, in the next scene, be given a Japanese uniform which he will wear throughout most of the rest of the book. Thus clad, he will be seen as a Japanese combatant, however young, when he, quite literally, runs into Ray in the novel’s pivotal event. The dazed Marine cannot aim his rifle before the AWOL Blood and Iron recruit detonates his eponymous grenade. Unsure of the result, we, the readers, are forced to turn the page and enter Part Two.
Ray does not accompany us there. Hideki will be our only guide from here on out. This is shocking storytelling for a children’s book. I would love to be a fly inside young readers’ brains as they try to accommodate the sudden death of a character they have come to know intimately for 130 pages. I know I missed him desperately right away. But I am an old guy, experienced enough to take it. I read on.
Hideki still fears he is a coward, but now he is also a killer. The rest of the book traces the hardening of Hideki’s heart, followed, at the end, by its swelling with generosity and courage. The onslaught of inhuman incidents and images have led to a deepening clarity of understanding.
Hideki’s hardening starts when he meets the deranged Private Maeda, who holds him and a group of Okinawans hostage to his paranoid, erratic behavior. Hideki stands up to him using his remaining grenade to back up the threat: “I’ve killed a man. Have you?”  This is convincing character development.
In the exhaustion of his flight, Hideki passes out and is recovered by American medics. They give him food and water, stitch up a gash in his head and give him medicine to help him sleep. He sees the Americans at their best. Not monsters, but saviors. Maybe surrendering to them, as the propaganda leaflets prompted, would not be so bad. But Hideki has to find his sister, a nurse with the Japanese Imperial Army, and the only other member of his family still alive. She is also a yuta with powers to communicate with ghosts, who can help him escape Rei‘s mabui. He flees again.
Marching south with hordes of Okinawan refugees, he notices army boots underneath “women”‘s kimonos. If the Americans discovered the enemy hidden among civilians, they would all be in danger. Hideki abandons the road for the safety of the forest. That night, American bombers attack the road. Hideki knows innocent civilians have died along with Japanese infiltrators. But he hurries on, “his eyes dry and his heart hard.”  He is following the same trajectory as Ray before him.
Now he encounters the Miyagi family, hiding out in their ancestral tomb. After weeks underground, they look wasted away like ghosts. “We thought the Japanese Imperial Army would protect us,” they say, completely oblivious of Gratz’s irony. The reader is aware because Hideki has begun to realize, that Okinawa is a sute-ishi, a sacrificial stone in the game of Go. The Miyagi ask, ingenuously, “Is it true what they say? That the Americans are monsters?” Because of his encounter with the American medic, Hideki is able to say, “They’re monsters only when they’re afraid. Just like the Japanese.” [185-186] He convinces them to surrender–according to regulation–and continues on his odyssey.
Hideki stumbles upon a command post in yet another cave and–aha!–there are nurses. But none of them knows a Kimiko. The Americans have arrived and the Japanese with whom he has sought refuge will fight to the death. Hideki and Masako, the nurse he has befriended, survive the grenade blast by throwing themselves under a metal cabinet. I wasn’t quite convinced of the feasibility of such an escape, or why the event was necessary to the story. It underscores the ruthlessness of the Japanese army, perhaps. Also, the deaths of so many in his midst continues to harden him to war’s cruelty. Lastly, he develops a bond with Masako, whose role as foil is not insignificant in the story’s final scenes.
Another cave. Another command post. Another Japanese call for suicidal defense. Hideki speaks for the reader in his mind: No! Not again! But this time his bad luck merges with good fortune: He finds Kimiko! In one of the funniest–and most meaningful–scenes in the book, younger brother and older sister argue over who is saving whom. “‘You don’t have to rescue me!’ Hideki protested. ‘I’m rescuing you!'”  Neither one is quite right. They have to save themselves. More, they rescue a troop of Okinawan children, also caught in the war’s crossfire.
And so, another escape out the back of a cave through a secret exit, by squeezing past an unexploded bomb, the Mother of All Bombs, as it happens. Masako freezes in fear, and Hideki, fated from time immemorial to be a coward, now speaks the words of encouragement to help dispel her panic. It is a significant moment, made all the richer after Hideki achieves his escape and Masako cajoles him to use his grenade. He could use it, she says, to detonate the Mother of All Bombs and bury the cruel Japanese in their own tomb. Hideki ponders, but shakes his head. Then Masako goads, “You told me to be brave enough to slide past that beast, but you’re not brave enough to throw your grenade at it.”  Gratz asks us to consider again: What is bravery?
In their next trial, Hideki, Kimiko, Masako, and the children must sneak past an American machine gun nest to escape the vise of No-Man’s-Land. But how to do so without getting shot by the Americans? Will the Americans be monsters or saviors? Again, the cowardly Masako pushes Hideki to use his grenade. But after all Hideki has been through–and he has been through an awful lot!–he now knows that this is not his, not the Okinawans’, fight. “No, if we attack them,” he explains, “we’re their enemy. When they’re not under attack, when they’re not afraid, the Americans are human beings.” [228-229]
It’s time, at last, to surrender.
He follows all the guidelines he remembers reading in the propaganda leaflets–and then some. Knowing how war can turn human beings into monsters (as Ray had known before him), he instructs the children, his sister and Masako, to remove their clothes. No hidden bombs, no human shields to threaten the Americans. He remembers the nakedness he felt after his encounter with the maggots, and he knows he must feel it again here, now. He places the grenade on the ground under his helmet and walks out with his hands up, in only his underwear. “Defenseless. Exposed. Vulnerable.” 
The maggot scene, like larva into pupa, has fulfilled its purpose. Living through war as a civilian is to be naked and exposed. Even, young readers, far from the brutalities of war, can begin to understand that.
Oh, but Gratz is not through with us yet. A young American recruit panics in the moment and fires. An Okinawan child falls wounded. The American in charge, the big bear-man with the missing ear begins shouting in his strange language. Are they all going to die? No, the man the reader knows to be the heart-hardened Big John is berating his own private for lack of control. The reader sighs deeply, appreciating that even a hardened warrior can defend the good. Indeed, in war, only the strong, righteous soldier can ensure peace.
In the last chapter, Gratz finally allows his reader relief from the tension and a chance for satisfying resolution. None is more satisfying than the response his sister gives to his question, “Why do you keep looking at me like that?” “You’ve changed,” she answers. You’re more confident. Braver.” The reader knows this to be true, of course, but there is nothing so pleasurable as hearing the outspoken Kimiko say it aloud. Rarely does a character change so convincingly or as meaningfully as Hideki does in this book. Rarely does a character’s development give a young reader such hope that confidence and bravery are attainable for him, too.
- Gratz, Alan. Grenade. New York: Scholastic, 2018.
- Sledge, E. B. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. New York: Ballantine Books, 1981.
- Images from Wikimedia Commons
- Okinawa Peace Memorial Park