Red Day by Sandy Fussell
Walker Books, 2020. ISBN: 9781760651886. 240pp.
(Age: 12+) Highly recommended. Cowra in New South Wales was the setting for a Japanese POW camp during World War Two and gained notoriety after the breakout of 1207 Japanese men on August 15, 1944. The impact of this escape and the subsequent deaths of many, lies undisturbed until an exchange student arrives at Charlie's farm. Charlie has synaesthesia and hence sees and hears differently: people have auras; days of the week are coloured; numbers and letters have attitudes. And when she shows Kenichi around her town, particularly the cemetery, she has an intense pain, one that is lessened when Kenichi touches her. There is a link between them which becomes obvious the more they delve into the town's past. At the cemetery they find the grave of the Japanese soldier who took shelter on Charlie's farm after the breakout, but she knows he survived, so the headstone is a mystery.
At first Charlie is adamant that she will not be the exchange student's minder, she is resentful that he has been installed in her dead brother's bedroom, cross with her single mother for taking this step without consulting her, worried that this boy will become friendly with her friends, shutting her out. Charlie is initially abuzz with ill will which Fussell writes sympathetically, revealing the girl's animosity with a deft hand.
Once the gravestone has been discovered the two work together as they strive to uncover the truth and this means going to see Charlie's grandmother who she has not seen since her brother's death. At first the town librarian seems helpful, but when she refuses to give back a photo deposited in the town archives, Charlie and Kenichi take steps.
Charlie's condition sees her empathising with the Japanese soldiers during the breakout, understanding what they were going through, feeling their pain. And her condition and the resolution of the problems set in motion by Kenichi's visit are resolved to perfection.
This is a wonderful read, giving the history of Cowra and the breakout against the background of a Japanese exchange student's search for an ancestor, missing since the war ended. It is the story of coming together, of resolution, of calm after unrest. I read it in one sitting and was enthralled with the setting, the characters and the history. Teacher's notes are available. Themes: Cowra (NSW), Japanese internment camp, World War Two, Synaesthesia, Exchange students.