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Under the Blood Red Sun (book)

Creators: Graham Salisbury

Book cover. Courtesy of Delacorte
View in the Densho Encyclopedia

Acclaimed novel for young adults set in the early months of World War II told through the eyes of a teenage Nisei protagonist in Honolulu whose father and grandfather are both interned. The novel was made into a feature film in 2014. It was followed by a sequel, House of the Red Fish , in 2006.


As the book begins, it is the fall of 1941, and we meet Tomi Nakaji, a thirteen year-old Nisei who lives in Nu'uanu (a valley just north of downtown Honolulu) with his Issei parents, his paternal grandfather, and his five year-old sister Kimi. Tomi's father, Taro, is a fisherman who regularly goes out to sea on his boat, the Taijyo Maru ; his mother is a housekeeper for the Wilsons, a wealthy white family that allows the Nakajis to live in a small house on their land. Tomi goes to Roosevelt High School with his best friend and neighbor Billy Davis. Billy is the star pitcher on a neighborhood baseball team called the Rats, and Tomi is his catcher; their close friends Mose and Rico Corteles (who are cousins) are also on the team. Their arch-rivals are the Kaka'ako Boys, an all-Japanese American team. (Tomi is the only Japanese American on the Rats.)

Though there are hints of wartime tensions—in particular, Keet, the Wilsons' son, harasses the Nakajis—Tomi lives a happy if modest existence. While playing ball with Billy in the nearby field one Sunday morning, they see Japanese planes flying overhead and overhear the explosions as they attack Pearl Harbor . Military and local police visit their home the next day to look for Taro, who had been out at sea fishing and had not returned home. They order that his prized pigeons all be killed since they could be used to send messages. The family disposes of their Japanese objects and later learns that Taro has been arrested—and shot in the leg in the process—and that his assistant has been killed. Eventually, Tomi's grandfather is arrested as well. But through the darkness, Billy and his parents and the other Rats support Tomi and his family, and Tomi embraces the new responsibilities and difficulties he faces in martial law Hawai'i.

The novel is written in the first person voice of Tomi, and much of the dialogue reflects the Hawaiian Creole English (or "pidgin," as it is popularly known) spoken by most island residents of the time.

Author Background

Author Graham Salisbury (1944– ) was born in Philadelphia, but mostly raised in Hawai'i, where his family has long roots going back to the early 1800s. [1] His father, Henry Forester Graham, was a naval officer who survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but who was later killed when his plane was shot down in the Pacific on Graham's first birthday. Salisbury grew up on the windward side of O'ahu and also in Kailua-Kona and Kamuela on the Big Island where he boarded at Hawaii Preparatory Academy from the 7th grade. Taken by music at a young age, he pursued a music career in the 1960s, recording as part of the well-known Sunshine Pop band The Millennium and also as a solo artist under the name "Sandy Salisbury." He also worked on a deep-sea fishing boat and as the skipper of a glass-bottom boat. He eventually went on to graduate from California State University, Northridge in 1974 with the intention of becoming a teacher. He cites a reading of Alex Haley's Roots "which changed my live forever," inspiring him to become a reader and eventually a writer. After graduating with an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Norwich University in 1990, he published his first novel for young adults, Blue Skin of the Sea (1992) to great acclaim. It set the template for his future books in that it was set in Hawai'i and was a coming of age story with a teenage boy as protagonist intended for an audience of teenage boys. Under the Blood Red Sun followed in 1994. [2]

In writing about boyhood in Hawai'i, Salisbury draws on his own childhood there, which he describes as "the most glorious childhood ever" on the one hand, but difficult on the other. [3] He grew up fatherless, and his mother, Barbara Twigg-Smith "was distant both emotionally and physically." [4] As he later wrote, there are "many kids out there with holes in their lives that they desperately want to fill.... Strange as it sounds to say, I—as a writer—consider myself lucky, indeed, to have all the holes I have in my own life. Because when I write, I remember, I understand, I empathize, and I feel a need to explore those holes and maybe even fill a couple of them...." [5]

In a 1997 interview, he told Janet Benton that the inspiration for the novel started with his imagining his father's experience at Pearl Harbor and then wondering what it would have been like to be a teenager at that time. He wrote an entire draft of the novel from Billy's point of view, but thought it didn't work. He then started over, deciding to write it from Tomi's perspective. "In the end, though, what I wrote was not so much about the attack on Pearl Harbor, or even about a Japanese family," he told Benton. "What I wrote about was friendship, loyalty, honor, and courage.... I basically wrote about myself and the friends I grew up with." [6]

The success of Under the Blood Red Sun inspired him to focus on the Japanese American story in later books. As he acknowledges in a 2007 interview, the book had "a rather open-ended ending" that led to the emergence of "new ideas." "I didn't set out to focus on the Japanese-American experience from the Hawaii point of view," he said. "But the power of their story, as it unfolded in my research, overwhelmed me." Salisbury's 2006 novel House of the Red Fish is a direct sequel to Under the Blood Red Sun , while two other books, Eyes of the Emperor (2005) and Hunt for the Bamboo Rat (2014) center on other Japanese American protagonists during World War II. [7]

Salisbury lives and works in Oregon, but returns to the island frequently to conduct research and to see friends and family.

Historical Accuracy

In telling the Nakajis' story, Salisbury references many aspects of Japanese American history, and most are accurately rendered. One minor exception comes in Tomi's description of picture brides in telling his mother's story. "In those days that was the only way a Japanese man in Hawaii could meet a Japanese woman," he writes "and lots of people did it." (page 39) While there were many such women, picture brides did not represent the majority of married Japanese women before the war. Many Issei who had the means returned to Japan to marry, and a fair number of Issei migrated as families. Many Issei men also married older Nisei women after coming to Hawai'i.

There are also some inaccuracies in the depiction of internment. Tomi's father is held in an internment camp on Sand Island , and is sent with other Japanese internees to a camp in the continental U.S. shortly after New Year's day, 1942 (214). But the first such transfer from Sand Island did not take place until February 21, 1942. Later, in early February 1942, we learn that Tomi's father has been taken to the Crystal City , Texas camp (229). But Crystal City did not open until November 1942 and the first Japanese Americans didn't arrive there until March 1943. Furthermore, as a camp built for internee families, Tomi's father would not have been sent there.


Under the Blood Red Sun received uniformly positive reviews and won many awards and honors. Reviewers cited in particular its ability to address serious issues while being entertaining, its evocation of a its time and place, and its depiction of boyhood camaraderie. Called "action-packed" and "riveting" by reviewers, John R. Lord wrote in VOYA that "In a time when positive co-existence is being touted in our schools, this novel is an outstanding example of thought-provoking—and at the same time eerily entertaining prose for the YA reader." [8] In The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books , Deborah Stevenson wrote that "The thoughtful treatment of the history and of questions of loyalty and heritage will appeal to some readers." [9] Patty Campbell in The Horn Book Magazine praised "veracity of the setting and the local dialects," while Rosemary Chance in Emergency Librarian calls the story "so real that it seems to have happened just yesterday to someone we know." [10] Kirkus Reviews writes that "Salisbury evokes historical time and place effortlessly so that the true message of the story—the value of friendship—shines through." [11] The only negative element cited by some reviewers is a "slow-evolving plot [that] drags in a few spots" and a "story [that] is slow to unfold." [12]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho


  1. Among his famous ancestors are his great-grandfather, Lorrin A. Thurston, the owner and publisher of Pacific Commercial Advertiser and one of the leaders in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and his uncle, Thurston Twigg-Smith, publisher of Honolulu Advertiser and philanthropist.
  2. "Graham Salisbury," Contemporary Authors Online (Detroit: Gale, 2009); "An Interview with Graham Salisbury," by Trisha, The Ya Ya Yas blog, May 17, 2007, ; Biography from Graham Salisbury website, , all accessed on May 26, 2016. Quote from "Graham Salisbury," Contemporary Authors Online .
  3. Burl Burlingame, "Fact in Fiction," Honolulu Star-Bulletin , Sept. 23, 2005, accessed on May 26, 2016 at .
  4. "Graham Salisbury," Contemporary Authors Online .
  5. "Graham Salisbury," Contemporary Authors Online .
  6. Janet Benton, "'Writing My Way Home': An Interview with Graham Salisbury," The ALAN Review 24.2 (Winter 1997): 6–10, accessed on May 26, 2016 at . Quote from page 10.
  7. "An Interview with Graham Salisbury," by Trisha.
  8. Frances Bradburn, Oct. 15, 1994, 425; John R. Lord, VOYA, Oct. 1994, 216.
  9. Deborah Stevenson, The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 48.3 (Nov. 1994): 102.
  10. Patty Campbell, "The Sand in the Oyster," The Horn Book Magazine , Sept.-Oct. 1995, 637; Rosemary Chance, Emergency Librarian , May–June 1995, 57.
  11. Kirkus Reviews , Oct. 15, 1994, 1415
  12. Publishers Weekly , Oct. 31, 1994, 64; Edith Ching, School Library Journal , July 1996, 52.
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Find in the Digital Library of Japanese American Incarceration

Under the Blood Red Sun

This item has been made freely available in the Digital Library of Japanese American Incarceration , a collaborative project with Internet Archive .

Might also like Missing In Action by Dean Hughes; A Boy No More by Harry Mazer; The Lucky Baseball: My Story in a Japanese-American Internment Camp by Suzanne Lieurance

Media Details
Author Graham Salisbury
Pages 246
Publication Date 1994
Awards Best Books for Young Adults, American Library Association, 1994


Bradburn, Frances, Booklist , Oct. 15, 1994, 425. ["It is a tribute to the writer's craft that, though there are no easy answers in the story, there is empathy for both cultures."]

Campbell, Patty. "The Sand in the Oyster." The Horn Book Magazine , Sept.-Oct. 1995, 637. ["The veracity of the setting and the local dialects, the humor and subtlety of the characterizations, the action-filed plot, and the historical importance of the subject make this an exceptional novel."]

Chance, Rosemary. Emergency Librarian , May-June 1995, 57. ["This growing-up story during wartime and amid prejudice is so real that it seems to have happened just yesterday to someone we know."]

Journal of Reading , April 1995, 585–86.

Kirkus Reviews , Oct. 15, 1994, 1415. ["Salisbury evokes historical time and place effortlessly so that the true message of the story—the value of friendship—shines through."]

Lord, John R. Voice of Youth Advocates , Oct. 1994, 216. ["Truly, the riveting nature of this book comes from its exceptional ability to combine the historical with the personal."]

Publishers Weekly , Oct. 31, 1994, 64. ["Salisbury skillfully describes Tomi's emotional highs and lows, and has a particular knack for realistically portraying the camaraderie and dialogue between boyhood chums."]

Sebasta, Sam. Reading Teacher , Nov. 1995, 243–44. ["By turns funny and heart-rending, this is historical fiction doe by an assured new writer.]

Stevenson, Deborah. The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 48.3 (Nov. 1994): 102. ["The thoughtful treatment of the history and of questions of loyalty and heritage will appeal to some readers; even more will relish the warmth of Tomi's friendships and the sheer adventure of his experience."]