104 pages 3 hours read

Alan Gratz


Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide



Alan Gratz’s seventh novel Grenade (2018) is a work of historical fiction set during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, an infamously bloody battle that took place in the Pacific Theater of World War II (WWII). Gratz’s novel, which is aimed at middle-grade readers but may also appeal to adults and young adults, follows the journeys of a US Marine and an Okinawan boy. Grenade won numerous awards, including the 2019 Bank Street Best Children’s Book, the 2018 Freeman Book Award, and the 2019 YALSA Quick Picks for Young Readers.

Content Warning: This novel features violent conflict and death during wartime. Additionally, for historical accuracy, it describes anti-Asian racism and ethnic and racial slurs, which are quoted in this study guide.

Plot Summary

Hideki Kaneshiro, a 13-year-old Okinawan boy, graduates from school early on the eve of the US invasion of Okinawa, a Japanese island. As a member of the Blood and Iron Student Corps, he is issued two grenades, one with which to kill American soldiers, and the other to kill himself. He fearfully sees US ships filling the bay of the coast of his island home.

Meanwhile, Ray Majors, a young US Marine, nervously approaches the Okinawan coast. He is instructed to run like hell onto the beach, which he does. His squad is surprised and suspicious at the lack of resistance. They proceed south on the island, where they soon encounter resistance from soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army, as well as conscripted Okinawans, many of whom are only young boys. They struggle to distinguish Okinawan civilians from soldiers; Ray objects to the killing of Okinawan civilians, but it is difficult to avoid when many Japanese soldiers hide in groups of civilians.

Ray kills a Japanese soldier who runs at him while he is on watch. He goes through the Japanese man’s possessions and finds photos of the man with his young family. Feeling guilty, Ray keeps the photos along with his own.

Hideki encounters an attacking group of US soldiers. Many of his friends die around him. Too scared to deploy his grenade, Hideki runs away and comes across the body of his dead principal, who was carrying photos of the Japanese Emperor to safety to protect the Emperor’s mabui, or spirit. Hideki decides to complete this task: He will take the framed pictures to his family’s tomb. When he arrives, he is shocked to find his father Oto, wounded in the stomach by an American. Oto tells Hideki to ignore the orders to die heroically, and to instead to find his older sister Kimiko. Hideki also learns that his mother and younger brother died when their evacuation ship was torpedoed. Oto then dies from his injuries.

Hideki is determined to find Kimiko, his only remaining family member. Her high school has been bombed. There, Hideki sees the bodies of many dead students; he is relieved that Kimiko is not among them. He sees a sign instructing fifth-year girls to go to the military hospital at Ichinichibashi. Just then, Hideki hears US soldiers arrive at the school, so he hides among the bodies. A soldier whose name Hideki hears as “Rei” pauses to examine a photo of school children on the wall. He takes the photo out of the frame and takes it with him. Once the soldiers have left, Hideki sets off south toward Ichinichibashi.

Hideki sees numerous incidents of brutality by Japanese soldiers; one Okinawan mother with a child is strapped with dynamite and sent toward American lines. Hideki becomes increasingly disillusioned by the war and decides to surrender to Americans. When a group of US soldiers tries to kill him with a flamethrower, however, he darts away, terrified.

Meanwhile, Ray is trying to hold Kakazu Ridge, a much-contested hill. He is appalled when an Okinawan woman with a baby comes toward them with dynamite strapped to her. Ray’s friend and squad leader, Corporal John Barboza, known as Big John, orders the three remaining men, including Ray, to run. Ray sprints away.

Ray and Hideki, both dashing through a forest, run into each other and are knocked backward. When they see that they are enemies, Ray fumbles for his gun and Hideki for a grenade. The grenade explodes. Hideki wakes up hours later and sees that Ray is dead. He feels immense guilt and sadness. Hideki takes Ray’s pack, keeping helpful supplies as well as Ray’s collection of photos: a photo of Ray and his father, the photo from the school wall, and photos of the Japanese soldier with his family.

Hideki continues south. He shelters for a night with a family of Okinawans and a crazed Japanese private in a cave. When Hideki realizes that he has the mabui of Ray, he starts to see the ghost of Ray out of the corner of his eye. While he performs a ceremony, with the help of an Okinawan woman, to put the mabui of Ray to rest, a Japanese private thinks that Hideki and the Okinawan woman are spies and threatens to shoot them. Hideki escapes. He is found beneath a tank by American soldiers, who take him to an army hospital. Hideki leaves when he wakes up, still determined to find Kimiko. Along the way, he convinces an Okinawan family to surrender, explaining that Americans are no more monstrous than any other race.

Hideki helps a young Okinawan nurse, Masako, to survive a vicious US attack on a Japanese command post and army hospital. They go to a cave to recuperate, and Hideki hears Kimiko’s voice talking to a group of children. They are reunited. Kimiko explains that the Japanese army is planning an assault on incoming American forces by using Okinawan children as human shields. Hideki, Masako, Kimiko, and the children escape north, sidestepping an unexploded US bomb and evading a Japanese soldier who tries to stop them.

As they travel, Hideki no longer wants to use his remaining grenade to kill anyone. While Kimiko, Masako, and the children pass, he distracts two Japanese soldiers by showing them his collection of photos. The soldiers entrust him with photos of their families and sweethearts. Hideki senses that they know that they will soon die.

When Hideki, Kimiko, Masako, and the children reach a US camp, Hideki instructs the group to take off their clothing and approach the Americans slowly, so as to appear harmless. He leaves his grenade with his discarded clothing, knowing that inciting violence will cause more violence. A scared American soldier shoots one of the children in the arm, but their squad leader, Big John, instructs them to let the children pass unharmed. Big John seems to recognize Ray’s mabui on Hideki.

Hideki and Kimiko go to the destroyed ruins of Shuri Castle, a landmark and a symbol of Okinawan history and culture. Hideki hangs the photos of the Japanese and American soldiers together in the ruins, mourning their loss and acknowledging their shared personhood despite their enmity.

Kimiko observes that Hideki has lost his own mabui when accidentally gaining Ray’s. Kimiko also observes that her brother, who was always cowardly and cursed with the mabui of their defeated ancestor Shigetomo, is now brave and free of Shigetomo’s mabui and resultant curse of cowardice. Kimiko feels that the landscape and the many lost mabuis illustrate the end of Okinawa, whereas Hideki suggests that it is a new beginning.