REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN
In what her publisher calls “her most ambitious, moving, and provocative novel to date” Sarah Bird in “Above the East China Sea” (Knopf, 336 pages, $25.95) tells the linked stories of two teen-aged girls — Luz James and Tamiko Kokuba — and how they deal with the loss of loved ones across seven decades.
Set on Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu Islands, “Above the East China Sea” tells how Luz James, a contemporary military dependent (the author, one herself, says she hates the common term “military brat” because they’re among the most well-behaved of American youth) is dealing with the death of her soldier sister Codie in Afghanistan.
Luz doesn’t get much support from her career Air Force sergeant mom stationed at Kadena Air Base, so she finds what comfort she can from her pals the “Smokinawans” who rely on their companionship, Cuervo Gold tequila and whatever pills they can scrounge. Luz is drawn mostly to Jake Furusato, who, as the novel progresses helps Luz in her quest for information about her Okinawan grandmother.
Alternating with Luz’s tale is the account of Tamiko Kokuba, who in 1945, along with 222 of her classmates, is taken out of her elite girls’ high school where they are known as the “Princess Lilly Girls” and trained to work assisting nurses and doctors in the Imperial Army’s cave hospitals. With defeat certain, Tamiko finds herself squeezed between the occupying Japanese and the invading Americans. She believes she has lost her entire family, as well as the island paradise she so loved, and, like Luz, she aches with a desire to be reunited with her beloved sister.
Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu Island chain, is about the size of Los Angeles: 463 square miles for L.A. and 469 for Okinawa. The islands were annexed by Japan in the 1860s, after centuries of independence as a trading power, a kind of Asian Venetian Republic.
After World War II Okinawa essentially became an American military colony. Bird, who herself spend time as a military dependent at Kadena, provides the context of the islanders and their belief that the spirits of their dead ancestors are part of life. She also shows how the Japanese, which some have called among the most racist people on the planet, treated the Okinawans with contempt.
The American-British Commonwealth air-sea-land battle for Okinawa from April to mid-June, 1945– code named Operation Iceberg — resulted in more casualties than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined and some have said that the horrific loss of life by fighters on both sides convinced the Americans to use the Atomic Bomb on the two cities. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Okinawa).
In “Above the East China Sea,” Sarah Bird has written one of the most moving novels of wartime loss that I’ve read. Luz and Tamiko come alive and readers will find themselves cheering the two young women on in their quests.
About the author
Sarah Bird, the author of previous eight novels, has been selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers series; a Dobie-Paisano Fellowship; New York Public Library’s 25 Books to Remember list; Elle Magazine Reader’s Prize; People Magazine’s Page Turners; Library Journal’s Best Novels; and a National Magazine Silver Award for her columns in Texas Monthly. In 2012 Bird was voted Best Austin Author for the fourth time by the readers of the Austin Chronicle; was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame; and received the Illumine Award for Excellence in Fiction from the Austin Library Foundation. In 2013 she was selected to be The University of Texas’ Libraries Distinguished Author speaker, and was featured on NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour.
She has written screenplays for Paramount, CBS, Warner Bros, National Geographic, ABC, TNT, Hemdale Studio, and several independent producers. Sarah’s screen adaptation of her sixth novel, The Flamenco Academy, is currently in development as well as two original screenplays. She has contributed articles to The New York Times, Salon, O Magazine, and is a columnist for Texas Monthly. Sarah, who moved all over the world growing up with her air force family, lives in Austin, Texas.
Her website: http://sarahbirdbooks.com