Sunday, August 24, 2014

Above the East China Sea by Sarah Bird

Upon finishing Sarah Bird’s ninth book, Above the East China Sea, I was simultaneously gobsmacked  and acutely humbled. This is an outstanding book.

Although Bird has been a highly recognized author for some time, I agree with Dallas Morning News reviewer, Joy Tipping, who said Above the East China Sea could be the book that lands Sarah among the literary elite.  Some might think that my friendship with Sarah disables me to render an unbiased opinion of this book, but there are plenty of opinion merchants who agree with me, including Tipping and the Houston Chronicle, Washington Times, San Francisco Times and the growing list of readers and reviewers. (Seventy-nine percent of Amazon readers gave Above the East China Sea five stars and ninety-two percent gave it four or five stars.)

I recommend that you read Above the East China Sea, and I want to offer guidance to help you get into it smoothly. Don’t try to figure out what is going on in the first twenty-five pages. Just let Sarah’s beautifully constructed words wash over you. It will all come together in due time. And don’t let your over-analytical tendencies inhibit your enjoyment of this author’s sensual, lyrical writing. For example:

A breeze from the East China Sea lifts sweat-dampened hair from the back of my neck. It carries with it the stench that is a constant reminder that not a single leaf of green hope has survived.

I also want to share some history that I wish I’d known going into this book. First, do you know exactly where Okinawa is? I’m big enough to admit that I knew it was somewhere around Japan, but that’s about it. Okinawa is the largest of five islands know as The Ryukyu Islands strung between Japan and Taiwan. In 1945, the date setting for much of this book, Okinawa was ruled by Japan despite the fact that Okinawan culture and language have always been distinctly different from that of Japan. 

Here are a couple of maps to give you a little better perspective. There’s a map in the book, but for some reason I didn’t pay attention to it until I was sucked into the story and realized how despairingly ignorant I was on everything related to Okinawa.

Half of Above the East China Sea is set in 1945 when the Americans invaded Okinawa with the intent to use it as a base for air operations to eventually invade Japan. That battle resulted in the highest number of casualties in the Pacific Theater during World War II, including 77,166 Japanese soldiers, 14,009 American Allies deaths and 65,000 casualties, and a third of the native Okinawan population, which is more deaths than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The  Okinawans weren’t fighting, they just happened to live where the American military wanted to be and the Japanese government didn’t want them to be?

The main character of this half of the book is Tamiko Kokuba, one of 222 Okinawan teen girls  hand picked by the Japanese Imperial Army to serve as "Princess Lilly"student nurses in military hospitals housed in caves and under horrific conditions. While bombs rained down above them, the girls dealt with the blood and gore injuries of soldiers who didn’t even have the advantage of pain medication or anesthesia. The conditions were so crowded that the girls couldn’t sit down for days, and there was nowhere for them to relieve themselves.  Eventually, Tamiko escapes the “rape and torture by the Americans" as promised by the Japanese military occupation, only to arrive at the cliffs above the East China Sea and the choice of suicide by choice or death by dishonor.

The other half of the book, which is elegantly woven in and out of Tamiko Kokuba’s story is of modern-day military brat Luz James. Luz’s desolation at the death of her military sister in Afghanistan, her growing confusion about her own Okinawan heritage and the American military occupation of Okinawa, and her Air Force Sergeant Mother's impassivity with it all, pushes Luz to the cliffs above the East China Sea seeking relief from the torture of a life unresolved.

And thus Tamiko and Luz's plights combine to tell the story of Okinawa today and yesterday – a story significant to literary edification and to historic perspective. 

Indeed Sarah Bird (pictured) is uncommonly skilled at intertwining seemingly disparate stories; she hands us curious little puzzle-like pieces until all of a sudden we look up to realize we have a beautiful finished picture. 

The author’s dedication at the front of the book means much more to me now than it did when I first read it:

“To the people of Okinawa, who have learned the only lesson war has to teach:  Nuchi du takara.” (Life itself is our treasure.)


  1. OK, I never talk about this to family, but I am a Narrative Theorist; that is, I have a Ph. D in English Composition with a specialty in Narrative Theory & Research. Basically, this is the study of the construction and cultural use of story--from the Biblical Parables, used by Christ, to the practice of Narrative Journalism. We study the role of story (narrative) cross-culturally, the power of story to shape and interpret lives, to teach, to convey cultural & religious beliefs. (There's more to the field, but that's all one needs to understand my response to this novel), I am a story addict, although, admittedly, a story snob. I love good stories--they make life "make sense." The stories in this book are magical. They make sense of lives, cross-culturally, cross-generationally--they touch the soul in a way that comforts and commands the reader to consider all she/he thinks she knows about life. Lovely! Jane (Sueanne Wade Crouse's niece)

  2. Thank you for your observations Jane. I love it when other people are willing to converse on the books I review. It is always helpful and enjoyable to me. SueAnn

  3. Jane - I hope you don't mind if I share your comments with Sarah Bird. She will appreciate.

    1. I'm ok with that. Share away!

    2. You betcha :-)