Set on the island of Okinawa, Sarah Bird’s Above the East China Sea explores life in the military, both modern day and during World War II. The novel is also the story of two teenage girls. Although their lives are lived nearly 70 years apart, they are intertwined through the Uchinānchu belief of kami. Readers who enjoy the kami aspect of the story are mostly likely to be rewarded by Above the East China Sea.
Luz James has been traveling from air base to air base with her older sister, Codie, her entire life. Nicknamed “caboose,” Luz has a built-in best friend in Codie and doesn’t have to try to make new friends with each move. But when Codie joins the military and is killed in Afghanistan, Luz begins to drift.
Now, living with her emotionally deprived mother, who is head of Security Forces at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, Luz’s sense of family is completely disjointed. Her grandparents, after meeting and marrying in Okinawa during the war, moved to rural Missouri. Yet, besides her mother and her sister, Luz’s maternal grandparents are the only family she has ever known.
Tamiko, the other girl who lives above the East China Sea, is only 15 years old, though she completely understands the importance of family. Similar to Luz, Tamiko is guided by a stern, no-nonsense mother, but she is raised with a heightened sense of tradition and honor. She knows that although they are often associated with their neighbors in Japan, the people of Okinawa are a proud sort, practical farmers with a love and respect for the land. The value of family is so great, much care and forethought is given to the burial rites of their people. The ancestors are called upon through the kami to assist with the assurance of a final resting place, surrounded by family. If the bones of the dead are not properly washed and the burial procedures are not properly followed, the dead will not be at rest. This is the case with Tamiko and her unborn son.
For nearly 70 years, they have been waiting for the kami to present an opportunity to be reunited with their family in the next life. And Luz provides that opportunity in a story enriched by spirit.
Above the East China Sea: A novel by Sarah Bird (Knopf ISBN | 9780385350112 | May 27, 2014)
Photo credit: Sarah Wilson