Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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. (May)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Sarah Bird is the author of eight previous novels. She is a columnist for Texas Monthly and has contributed to other magazines including O, The Oprah Magazine; The New York Times Magazine; Real Simple; and Good Housekeeping. The 2010 Johnston Dobie Paisano Fellow, 2012 inductee into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame, and 2012 recipient of the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation Illumine Award, she makes her home in Austin, Texas.
About the Author
Sarah Bird is the author of The Yokota Officers Club and eight other novels. She grew up on air force bases around the world and now makes her home in Austin, Texas. She is a columnist for Texas Monthly and has contributed to other magazines, including O, The Oprah Magazine; The New York Times Magazine and Real Simple.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Above the East China Sea, Sarah Bird’s poignant and affecting novel about two teenage girls living decades apart who share a profound and unexpected bond.
1. Luz and Tamiko have a shared experience of loss that binds their lives together. Explore the sisterly bond in each relationship. Are there any similarities between Luz and Codie’s relationship, and Tamiko and Hatsuko’s? Describe how Luz and Tamiko eachdeals with the loss of herolder sister, and how eachcopes with those feelings.
2. How do the themes of duty and honor manifest throughout Above the East China Sea? Are there any similarities in how Codie and Hatsuko approach their service to their country? How do Luz and Tamiko express disapproval toward their sisters’ loyalty?
3. The military brat experience is explored very openly throughout Above the East China Sea. What unique aspects of the experience are revealed in the novel? How does the shared experience of being a brat connect Luz to her friends? Why does Luz regard the Gung Hos with such disdain?
4. How much did you know about Okinawa before reading the novel? After learning the highly significant role that Okinawa has played in our country’s defense strategy ever since World War II, were you surprised at how little we know about the island? Do you understand better now why the current dispute between China and Japan over a group of uninhabited, oil-rich islands just south of Okinawa is so fraught that Slate magazine has said that “if World War III takes place anytime soon, this is where it will start”?
5. Describe the role of kami throughout the novel. How do the kami act as a catalyst for discovery? Was it hard to make the leap of imagination required to accept a world ruled by the spirits of the dead?
6. Throughout the novel, language barriers appear—between Luz and those who speak military jargon, between the Okinawans and the Japanese, between Luz and the Okinawans. How do these barriers hinder relationships from developing?
7. The relationship between the Japanese and the Okinawans is complex and fraught with tension. How does Japanese culture influence the Okinawans? How does the relationship between the two cultures change over the course of the novel?
8. Discuss the scene at Murder House and the meaning of Luz’s vision. How does this experience propel her to search for answers?
9. Luz has a difficult relationship with her mother, and itonly intensifies after the death of Codie. Discuss why mother and daughterclash sooften. By the end of the novel, how does Luz’s perception of her mother change? Why do you think Luzasks her mother to go to the funeral?
10. On page 91, Tamiko’s mother tells her, “From now on your life doesn’tbelong to you. It belongs to me and to your father and our mothers and fathers.” How is this statement proven throughout the novel? How does this emphasis on family legacy create huge differences between their society and our own?
11. Luz expresses that she never really knew her grandmother, but she had very specific sensory memories attached to her presence. After she meets Vaughn and finds out more about Setsuko’s life, does Luz’sperception of her grandmother change?
12. How do Okinawans define themselves as a people? Compare the ways in which Tamiko’s family members describe themselves and their heritage as opposed to how Jake’s family does several decades later. What traits carry over? What has changed in the way they have defined themselves since World War II?
13. Describe the change in Luz as she transitions from a skeptic to one who has felt her life moved by forces beyond her intellectual understanding. How does Jake help her get to that point? Have you ever had a mystical experience?
14. In the beginning of the novel, Luz refuses to make any more new friends. How does her stance change over the course of the novel? Explore her relationship with Jacey. How does this “normal” female friendship help to restore her faith in herself and in others?
15. How do the Okinawans perceive the Americans in present-day Okinawa? Reflect on the scene in which Luz and Jake go to the A&W to meet the yuta. How has Americanization affected the island nation?
16. On page 296, Luz asserts that “Runway lights are home.” What does she mean by this statement? How is the concept of home explored and destabilized throughout this novel? Where do you think Tamiko’s true home is?
17. The last few pages of the novel reveal the circumstances in which Tamiko conceived her child. How does her relationship with her unborn child buoy her, despite the environment of violence surrounding them? Explore the change of narrative perspective that occurs in the last chapter of the novel. Why do you think the author chose to have the last chapter come from the perspective of Tamiko’s child?
18. How familiar with Okinawan culture were you before reading this novel? Were you aware of the statistics about the widespread killing and destruction of Okinawa that occurred during World War II as described on page 238?
19. Compare the imperial aspirations of Japan in World War II with those of our own country after that war. How does the patriotic propaganda differ between the two? How does Japan’s history illustrate the tragic consequences of allowing a government to fall into the hands of militaristic industrialists? How are those dangers heightened when knowledge of the actions and budget of a country’s military isshielded from the people by a screen of security concerns?