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Originally published Friday, June 27, 2014 at 6:17 AM

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‘Above the East China Sea’: sisters, stories intertwined

Sarah Bird’s “Above the East China Sea” tells the story of two teenagers, separated by several decades but alike in their desire for reunion with their beloved older sisters. Bird appears Wednesday, July 2, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Sarah Bird

The author of “Above the East China Sea” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 2, at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or


“Above the East China Sea” opens, startlingly, with a pregnant 15-year-old in World War II Okinawa jumping off a cliff to her death, then breathlessly segues into the narrative of a present-day teen on the island contemplating the same fate at the edge of a precipice.

Sarah Bird’s compelling novel (Knopf, 318 pp., $25.95) intertwines the stories, nearly 70 years apart, of Tamiko and Luz, who have been separated from their beloved older sisters, Hatsuko and Codie.

Through suicide, Tamiko is running toward a reunion in the spirit world with her ancestors, which a violent death at the hands of the occupying Imperial Japanese Army or the invading “demon” Americans would deny her.

Luz seeks oblivion to escape the fresh pain of Codie’s death in Afghanistan. It’s an oblivion that has eluded her through self-medicating with pilfered prescription drugs, plus the alcohol and recreational drugs provided by her stoner friends on Kadena Air Base — where Luz’s emotionally distant mom is head of base police.

Bird deftly captures the unique, era-appropriate voice of each girl. Tamiko’s story unfolds as she has tender conversations with her unborn child, who, never having experienced an earthly life, impatiently awaits being embraced by their ancestral spirits. “You must have all my memories so that you will know your clan and they will know you,” Tamiko explains.

The memories are transmitted by a kind of osmosis. Tamiko’s child implores her, “Remember the colors again. The pink of the baby piglets. The gold of the trunks of your bamboo grove. The purple of your mother’s sweet potatoes ...”

Tamiko idolizes Hatsuko, who has already attained a goal to which Tamiko fervently aspires: acceptance to a girls high school and inclusion in the sorority of Princess Lily girls, named for the lily-shaped pins proudly worn on their uniforms. As World War II escalates, the Japanese army, using the colony of Okinawa as a shield against the encroaching American fleet, conscripts the Princess Lily girls as nurses. Tamiko and Hatsuko are thrust into the hell of the Battle of Okinawa, enduring deprivation and chaos.

Like author Bird (“The Yokota Officers Club,” which also drew on her life in an Air Force family), Luz is a military brat: “Our entire lives, Codie and I, always moving to another base, another state, another country, we had been like those diving beetles who can live underwater because they take a bubble of air from the surface with them. Codie was my bubble of air ...”

Luz is nicknamed Tiger Woods by a classmate “... since it’s easy shorthand for ‘part Okinawan-part Filipina-part Missouri redneck-part miscellaneous.’ You know, your basic caramel person.” Her bravado hides her pain. She slowly opens up to handsome high-school crush Jake, an Okinawan native who at first seems like just another surfer “playa,” but reveals himself to be both noble and a fierce guardian of his heritage and his island’s traditions.

Truths are revealed throughout the haunting “Above the East China Sea” — the paternity of Tamiko’s child, Luz’s lineage.

Revelations are at once heartbreaking and uplifting, and reinforce an Okinawan expression uttered by many of Birds’ unforgettable characters: “Nuchi du takara.” Life is the treasure.

Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi is a Seattle Times desk editor.

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