Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Above the East China Sea: A Novel by Sarah Bird

Above the East China Sea: A Novel.  Sarah Bird. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. May 2014. 336 pp.  ISBN#: 9780385350112.

Pregnant Tamiko, 15 years old, is so overwhelmed by the invasion of Okinawa by the Americans and the loss of her sister, Hatsuko, that she jumps off the Okinawan cliffs to her death.  At the bottom of the East China Sea, she and her unborn baby await the kami or (God-spirits) to take them to the after-world.  In order to attain this glorious end, they must await the coming of another living person to whom they will attach and enter into their final journey. While they wait she tells the story of her family’s participation in the defense of their homeland.  Every word, deed, thought and feeling is expected to glorify their Emperor and the upcoming victory of the Japanese soldiers and sailors who will free them from the Americans.  Tamiko’s mother knows better and speaks what Hatsuko and Tamiko fear are traitorous words that could guarantee severe punishment, if not death at the hands of Japanese.  For Tamiko’s mother knows about the strength of the “sleeping giant” who has been awakened by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Hatsuko, however, who is in love with a Japanese officer, is so besotted with the Japanese soldiers and propaganda that she is determined to help them in what she believes will soon be a brilliant victory despite the horrific conditions of the camps and military hospitals on the island!

Years later, Luz James, the rebellious daughter of an American military officer, is mourning the loss of her sister Codie, an Air Force enlistee who was killed in Afghanistan.  Codie is so very angry at her mother for talking Codie into enlisting that she blames her for Codie’s death until soon after Luz discovers a letter written in Japanese that leads her to begin a quest to discover the roots of her family; for if she succeeds in this search, the “yuta” or seer will make contact with Codie and then Luz can ask her what direction the rest of her life should take.  The journey she shares with Jake and sometimes her other druggie acquaintances is phenomenal for the secrets it reveals not only about her own family but also that of Tamiko and Hatsuko’s family.  It’s a coming-of-age story of parallel lives that eventually will coalesce the two stories into an aspect of Okinawan history little known to most Western readers.

For Okinawa had its own proud history but gradually through poverty and ill fortune turned into the Okinawans being considered un-Japanese and therefore inferior to their Japanese neighbor.  Americans are initially portrayed as having no history to respect and honor, an attitude that will alter dramatically because of the events depicted in this complex novel. 

Above the East China Sea: A Novel is a phenomenal read, as layers and layers of truth and lies are revealed, like peeling an onion to reveal the potent and magnificent taste hidden inside.  The devastation of Okinawa during the war, as well as the depth of service of American soldiers, who sacrifice more than their lives, is gradually exposed in an unforgettable, irresistible way that defies the imagination! Superb work of historical fiction!

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