Pragmatic Historian
art family history reading

Seventeen – Another Novel Based on History

I posted a few weeks ago about a novel I read, “The Art Forger,” that was based on a historical event, the theft of numerous works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Since that time, I have read another novel based on a historical event. This one is called “Seventeen” by Hideo Yokoyama. I found a hardcover copy at a local dollar store and was so taken with the cover art and description in the front jacket that I had to buy it.

Book cover: "Seventeen" by Hideo Yokoyama.
Book cover: “Seventeen” by Hideo Yokoyama.

For me, this was a different sort of historical fiction. I’ve read loads of books that reimagine subjects related to art and artists of the past, including “The Art Forger” mentioned above, “Girl with a Peal Earring” by Tracy Chevalier and “Sacred Bleu: A Comedy d’Art” by Christopher Moore, but never one written about a plane crash.

The novel follows reporter Kazumasa Yuuki, a reporter in the Gunma Prefecture of Japan, as he is assigned as crash desk chief for the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123. Because of past events in Yuuki’s life, he’s not too keen to be assigned to directing the story coverage in the newsroom; he’d rather be serving as an on-the-ground reporter. A lot of the novel covers his emotional struggle with the situation related both to the crash, which took the lives of 520 people (there were 4 survivors of this horrific crash in the Osutaka Mountains), and his discomfort with leading the story coverage. Yuuki is also an inexperienced mountain climber. Interspersed with the newsroom drama are scenes of him overcoming the fear of climbing a particularly challenging rock face seventeen years after the crash, hence the name of the book.

Because the author was an investigative news reporter, the action in the newsroom feels authentic. With a crash as big as JAL 123, I knew there had to be significant coverage of the details. So, I asked my husband what he knew about the crash, as one does when one is interested in airplane crashes. Along with the history of serial killers, my husband has consumed every documentary he can find on major plane crashes. If I ever have a question about either subject, I can count on him to point me in the right direction.

All I had to do was mention JAL 123 and he said, “Didn’t that plane go down in the mountains because of a problem with the tail?” He also knew that the issue was caused by a lousy repair to that part of the plane.

The author covers these details in the course of the novel, but you can read about them on the crash’s Wikipedia page.

Because Hideo Yokoyama does such a masterful job of working the crash details into the story and had also worked as a reporter, the intricacies of what happened in a Japanese newsroom of a local newspaper in the 1980s are an interesting peek into the culture of the time.

It seems the reporters weren’t opposed to getting physical with each other in order to work out problems or if they felt insulted. One passage on page 273 illustrates this:

“Hanazawa threw himself at Kurasaka and kicked the hand that was holding the piece of the fuselage. He made him empty everything out of his pockets on the spot. He grabbed him by the collar and pulled him behind a tree. Then he began to lay into him. Punched him over and over. In the face, in the stomach …”

The one female reporter in the newsroom was also not treated well by Yuuki, which made me cringe.

One other point keeps coming up over and over throughout the novel. The North Kanto Times, the paper at which Yuuki works, has only covered a few major stories within the Gunma Prefecture, so to have this massive plane crash in the paper’s coverage area is a huge deal, one that can make a reporter’s career. Yuuki is very conscious of the weight of this responsibility because it also has bearing on how the North Kanto Times measures up to newspapers from larger areas like Tokyo.

It seems the struggle between rural versus urban areas is a universal phenomenon.

“Seventeen” is a fascinating example of historical fiction, the culture of a Japanese newsroom in the 1980s, and the stress of covering a massive plane crash. I highly recommend it.