In her most ambitious, moving, and provocative novel to date, Sarah Bird makes a stunning departure. Above the East China Sea tells the entwined stories of two teenaged girls, an American and an Okinawan, whose lives are connected across seventy years by the shared experience of profound loss, the enduring strength of an ancient culture, and the redeeming power of family love.
Luz James, a contemporary U.S. Air Force brat, lives with her strictly-by-the-rules sergeant mother at Kadena Air Base in Okianawa. Luz’s older sister, her best friend and emotional center, has just been killed in the Afghan war. Unmoored by her sister’s death and a lifetime of constant moving from base to base, Luz turns for the comfort her service-hardened mother cannot offer to the “Smokinawans,” the “waste cases,” who gather to get high every night in a deserted cove. When even pills, one-hitters, Cuervo Gold, and a growing crush on Jake Furusato aren’t enough to soften the unbearable edge, the desolate girl contemplates taking her own life.
In 1945, Tamiko Kokuba, along with two hundred of her classmates, is plucked out of her elite girls’ high school and trained to work in the Imperial Army’s horrific 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.
On an island where the spirits of the dead are part of life and your entire clan waits for you in the afterworld, suicide offers Tamiko the promise of peace. As Luz tracks down the story of her own Okinawan grandmother, she discovers that, if she surrenders to the most unbrat impulse and allows herself to connect completely with a place and its people, the ancestral spirits will save not only Tamiko but her as well.
Propelled by a riveting narrative and set at the very epicenter of the headline-grabbing clash now emerging between the great powers, Above the East China Sea is at once a remarkable chronicle of how war shapes the lives of conquerors as well as the conquered and a deeply moving account of family, friendship, and love that transcends time.
This eBook edition includes a Reading Group Guide.
Set in Okinawa with heroines who live seven decades apart, Bird's ambitious and rewarding novel offers a fascinating glimpse of the Pacific island. The novel begins in 1945 as Tamiko, a pregnant 15-year-old, commits suicide by throwing herself into the East China Sea, out of fear (spawned by Japanese propaganda) that the American soldiers overtaking the island will rape and kill her. Her story unfolds in flashback, as Tamiko speaks to her unborn child while both their spirits await entry into the next world. Alternating chapters set in contemporary Okinawa feature Luz James, the bratty military daughter of a part-Okinawan mother in the U.S. Air Force, who is mourning her sister Codie, killed during a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Bird draws a parallel between Luz, who suffers from suicidal thoughts herself, and Tamiko, who is similarly grief-stricken over the fate of her sister, Hatsuko, whose blind acceptance of government propaganda led her to serve as a nurse at a military hospital under terrible conditions. Bird (The Yokota Officer's Club), herself an "Army brat," invests the narrative with psychological veracity and effectively contrasts brusque military lingo with the islanders' lyrical expressions. While some readers may find the dialogue between Tamiko and her unborn child an awkward device, this potential flaw is balanced by the powerful sense of history and place.