When Sadako is first diagnosed with leukemia, illness is new to her. Though she knows that many people come down with the “atom bomb sickness,” no one in her family has been touched by it, and although she was a baby during the bombing, the atomic explosion “hadn’t even scratched her.” Death is a frightening prospect for Sadako, as it is for anyone, but as her stay in the hospital goes on and her condition worsens, Sadako begins to see that freedom can take many forms. The schoolyard, the racing track, and the streets of her neighborhood always represented freedom to Sadako, but these wide open physical spaces no longer offer her the freedom she once knew. As Sadako prepares to die, she turns to her flock of paper cranes, and considers how free they seem. Sadako longs for a new kind of freedom—freedom from pain, from illness, and from the grief her sickness has brought into the lives of her friends and family. Eleanor Coerr, taking up a relatively solemn theme for a children’s story, nonetheless argues through Sadako’s story that death can offer freedom to those who truly suffer.
Kenji, another boy stricken with leukemia who is in the hospital at the same time as Sadako, is the character most representative of this theme. When Sadako meets Kenji, they share stories from their lives, and Sadako learns that Kenji is an orphan whose parents presumably (though it is never confirmed) perished due to the “atom bomb sickness” as well. Kenji, who is only nine, had not been born at the time the bomb was dropped, but was poisoned when his mother’s radiation poisoning was passed on to him during her pregnancy. Kenji knows that he will soon die, and has no hope to live. Sadako attempts to get Kenji on board with her paper crane project, insisting that, if he completes a thousand, he too will be able to wish for his health back, but Kenji doesn’t believe that the cranes will save him.
After Kenji’s death, Sadako is devastated, but Nurse Yasunaga comforts her by assuring her—and perhaps illuminating for her for the first time ever—that Kenji has gone on to a better place and is now free from all the pain he endured. Sadako’s only frame of reference for death are those people who died in the bombing or had their lives cut short by atom bomb sickness. Thus, death has only ever been presented as a great tragedy to her. Nurse Yasunaga helps her to understand for the first time that death can be a welcome reprieve at the end of a life full of pain, illness, and suffering.
As this is a book of children’s literature, it may seem somewhat unusual that Coerr offers a vision of death as freedom, but introducing children to such an idea at a young age has the benefit of relieving them of some of the fear they might feel about the subject of death. Others’ preoccupation with death—whether the deaths of the past or the impending deaths of characters like Sadako and Kenji—has consumed Sadako’s childhood, arguably preventing her from ever experiencing true freedom. In her honest depiction of the tragic truth of Sadako’s life, Coerr argues that, in light of Sadako’s incurable disease, death offers her a type of freedom inaccessible to everyone in life: freedom from suffering.
Death as Freedom ThemeTracker
Death as Freedom Quotes in Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes
Sadako was feeling especially tired one day when Nurse Yasunaga wheeled her out onto the porch for some sunshine. There Sadako saw Kenji for the first time. He was nine and small for his age.
“Hello!” she said. “I’m Sadako.”
Kenji answered in a low, soft voice. Soon the two were talking like old friends Kenji had been in the hospital for a long time, but he had few visitors. His parents were dead and he had been living with an aunt in a nearby town.
“She’s so old that she only comes to see me only once a week,” Kenji said. “I read most of the time.”
Sadako turned away at the sad look on Kenji’s face.
“It doesn’t really matter,” he went on, “because I’ll die soon. I have leukemia from the bomb.”
“You can’t have leukemia,” Sadako said. “You weren’t even born then.”
“That isn’t important,” Kenji said. “The poison was in my mother’s body and I got it from her.”
Sadako wanted to comfort him, but she didn’t know what to say. Then she remembered the cranes. “You can make paper cranes like I do,” she said, “so that a miracle can happen.”
“I know about the cranes, but it’s too late. Even the gods can’t help me now.”
One day Kenji didn’t appear on the porch. Late that night Sadako heard the rumble of a bed being rolled down the hall. Nurse Yasunaga came in to tell her that Kenji had died. Sadako turned to the wall and let the tears come. After a while she felt the nurse’s hand on her shoulder. When Sadako finally stopped sobbing, she looked out [the window] at the moonlit sky.
“Do you think Kenji is up there on a star island?”
“Wherever he is, I’m sure that he is happy now,” the nurse said. “He has shed that tired, sick body and his spirit is free.”
Dr. Numata gave Sadako blood transfusions or shots almost every day. “I know it hurts,” he said, “but we must keep on trying.” Sadako nodded. She never complained about the shots and almost constant pain. A bigger pain was growing deep inside her. It was the fear of dying. She had to fight it as well as the disease. The golden crane helped. It reminded Sadako that there was always hope.
The leaves on the maple tree were turning rust and gold when the family came for one last visit. Eiji handed Sadako a big box wrapped in gold paper and tied with a red ribbon. Slowly Sadako opened it. Inside was something her mother had always wanted for her—a silk kimono with cherry blossoms on it. Sadako felt hot tears blur her eyes.
"Why did you do it?" she asked, touching the soft cloth. "I'll never be able to wear it and silk costs so much money."
"Sadako chan," her father said gently, "your mother stayed up late last night to finish sewing it. Try it on for her."
With a great effort Sadako lifted herself out of bed. Mrs. Sasaki helped her put on the kimono and tie the sash. Sadako was glad her swollen legs didn't show.
As Sadako grew weaker, she thought more about death. Would she live on a heavenly mountain? Did it hurt to die? Or was it like falling asleep?
If only I could forget about it, Sadako thought. But it was like trying to stop the rain from falling. As soon as she concentrated on something else, death crept back into her mind.
Already lights were dancing behind her eyes. Sadako slid a thin, trembling hand over to touch the golden crane. Life was slipping away from her, but the crane made Sadako feel stronger inside.
She looked at her flock hanging from the ceiling. As she watched, a light autumn breeze made the birds rustle and sway. They seemed to be alive and flying out through the open window.
How beautiful and free they were! Sadako sighed and closed her eyes.
She never woke up.