Review: Above the East China Sea

When I was looking online for a picture of Takako and the Great Typhoon the other month, I stumbled across an ad for another book relating to Okinawa – Above the East China Sea by Sarah Bird. As there really aren’t many mainstream works of fiction that focus on the Ryukyu Islands, I immediately jumped at the chance to order it.

OkinawabookThe story line follows two young girls, in two drastically different eras. Luz, part Okinawan and all moody teenager, has just PCSed (been reassigned) to Okinawa’s US Air Force base with her mom. Mere days after they arrive, they receive news that Luz’ sister has been killed in Afghanistan. Never one to make the best of a new duty station anyway, Luz withdraws into the company of the “stoner” crowd as she deals with her sister’s death. A chance encounter around Obon time with the spirit of a dead Okinawan girl sets up the intersection of the two narratives. Tamiko is a high school student in 1945 who joins her sister as a Himeyuri “lily” girl, one of the several hundred students conscripted to work as field nurses during the Battle of Okinawa. Her story – which is recounted alongside Luz’s throughout the book – isn’t a happy one and ends in her tragic suicide (a fact you find out quite early on). She cannot rest until her bones are returned to her family tomb and to do so, she unwittingly enlists the help of Luz, who ends up on her own search for family roots in Okinawa.

Sarah Bird knows her stuff. She grew up as an Air Force brat on bases around the world and has clearly had perosnal experience in the Pacific. Her current knowledge of the military facilities on Okinawa was impeccable and made me feel as if she just completed a tour there. All of the sights she describes around the island were easy for me to identify in the writing and place in my own personal context. Here is a writer who knows the island as well as I feel I do. She also writes very realistic dialogue and while I don’t yet have a teenager in my house (let’s not rush that), the words out of her young protagonist’s mouth ring incredibly true.

I poured through this book in two days. I likely would have finished it in one if I didn’t have those niggling parental responsibilities. Personally, I really enjoyed the story. Not only was it tightly written with a good plot that moved things along, but all of the cultural nuances and additions rang true. And following Luz and Tamiko to places on Okinawa that I once frequented myself – especially the southern part of the island where the Battle of Okinawa took place – made for a very nostalgic read.

If you’ve ever been to or lived on Okinawa, I guarantee you’ll enjoy this book. If you’ve never been, this is a great introduction to Okinawan history (the war) and culture (Obon and the Okinawan connection to spirits), as well as to the complicated issue of the American military presence in the Ryukyus.

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