Although Eleanor Coerr died almost a year ago, it isn’t just her recent memorial service in New Jersey that has people remembering her. Her Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, the culmination of a childhood fascination with Japan and some postwar serendipity, has become a children’s classic, the most widely known of her abundant output.
Coerr (pronounced “Core”) was born in Kamsack, Sask., on May 22, 1922.
In 1949, newly married to a demobilized U.S. Air Force officer, and working for the Ottawa Journal as a reporter and youth columnist, she responded to the paper’s request for a foreign correspondent to describe conditions after the war. She was only 28, with limited experience. But since there were no other volunteers, the paper grudgingly sent her. According to her unpublished autobiography, Flying With Cranes, she booked passage on a Dutch freighter carrying military supplies to Yokohama (no civilian ships or planes went to Japan at that time), and ended up boarding with a Japanese family on a farm in the middle of nowhere.
Her husband, Robert Hicks, had been called back to active duty at the outbreak of the Korean War in June of 1950. Though he spent most of his time in Korea, he was based in Japan, but civilians, including family members, were not allowed on the base.
“I’m not sure how much my father knew about this,” said her son, Bill Hicks. But he maintains it was absolutely typical of her. She would get an idea in her head, and just charge ahead, assuming things would fall into place.
In this she was like her father, a small businessman in Saskatoon who was given to gambling and following impractical dreams. The family had taken some lumps while Eleanor was growing up, but somehow always picked themselves up and kept going, spirit intact. When Eleanor told her family that she was going to Japan, she writes that her father told her, “Make lots of good memories, and don’t be afraid to take risks. That is how we learn to be brave.”
Eleanor lived for a year with the farm family, learning the Japanese language and customs and exploring the area. At long last the English teacher who was tutoring her in Japanese judged that she could read and speak well enough to travel on her own. She set out for Hiroshima, where the first atomic bomb had been dropped. Although she had done plenty of research ahead of time, she was unprepared for the scale of the devastation, and for the stories she heard from people who had been there at the time. The magnitude of the tragedy marked her deeply.
In early 1952, her husband was transferred from Korea to the U.S. base at Nagoya. She moved to a hotel in Nagoya, where she stayed when she wasn’t travelling about pursuing stories. She was by now expecting her first child. A hospital corpsman on the base monitored her pregnancy on the sly, and Robert was born in 1952.
The family transferred back to the U.S. in 1953, and their second son, Bill, was born in Alabama the following year. Eleanor continued to write for newspapers as the family bounced from Alabama to California to the Philippines to Taiwan.
In 1963, she revisited Hiroshima. Among the recovery initiatives was a beautiful Peace Park. In it stood a statue of a young girl, a toddler at the time the bomb was dropped, who had died a decade later of radiation-induced leukemia. Hoping her prayers for health would be answered if she could fold one thousand origami cranes, Sadako Sasaki had died before reaching that goal. Her classmates made the remaining cranes, and also sold copies of a photocopied and staple-bound autobiography of Sadako to raise money for the creation of the statue.
Inspired by the story, Eleanor scoured the country for the booklet containing Sadako’s memoirs; but nearly a decade after the fact, there was nothing to be found. It was only years later that she happened to mention it to a missionary friend with whom she was having tea, and the woman retrieved a copy from a trunk in her attic.
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes was published in 1977, and has spawned its own small educational industry, with websites, lesson plans, and origami instructions. The book has also inspired works of music, theatre, and ballet, as well as the shipping of countless paper cranes to Hiroshima from children all over the world.
Eleanor’s marriage to Hicks ended in 1965, and she married diplomat Wymberly De Renne Coerr. They spent two years in Ecuador, where Eleanor created the first free children’s library in Quito. On their return, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in English from American University, and a master’s in library science from the University of Maryland.
With her degrees completed, she began to write in earnest, publishing several dozen books for young readers over the next 40 years. An award-winning biography of Jane Goodall, easy-to-read adventure tales, and sensitive accounts of children in other cultures were among her output; but none rivalled the popularity or the impact of the Sadako book.
She also frequently spoke in schools and at conferences, both in the U.S. and around the world, and occasionally taught children’s literature and creative writing.
By the 1990s, the Coerrs were moving around to seek care for Wymberly’s Parkinson’s disease. Following his death in 1996, Eleanor continued to move, perhaps just because she always had. One frequent destination was the Monterey area of California, where she had lived for more than a decade with Wymberly.
She married a retired physician in 2001; he died in 2008.
In May of 2010, Eleanor Coerr and Sadako Sasaki’s brother were both honoured guests at the Tribute World Trade Center Visitor Center in New York. Mr. Sasaki presented one of his sister’s original paper cranes to the memorial. Eleanor, though moving with some difficulty, was as lively and sharp as ever, recounting several story ideas she was working on.
She passed away six months later, on Nov. 22, at the age of 88. At Christmas some friends gathered with her sons in Monterey to scatter her ashes; a more formal memorial took place on Oct. 9, near her last home in New Jersey.
She leaves her two sons, and many schoolchildren who know how to fold a paper crane.
Special to The Globe and Mail