Tales from a Military Kid: ‘Above the East China Sea’

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A photo of Sarah Bird’s Catholic military family taken in 1967, the year they were transferred to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.

A photo of Sarah Bird’s Catholic military family taken in 1967, the year they were transferred to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.

My third novel, “Mommy Club,” was a Valentine to San Antonio where I spent the happiest years of my childhood. Both of them.

My Air Force family was stationed at Brooks Air Force Base from 1961-63, and I went to Holy Name Catholic School in what was then considered to be the farthest reaches of the Southside. It was the first year the school was open, and my seventh-grade class and my big brother’s eighth-grade class were squashed together into one of the Quonset huts that served as classrooms. Two other siblings were in lower grades. Our younger brother and sister stayed home. A family of six kids was considered moderate to small at Holy Name. One friend came from a family of 13, and another had 11, and her mom was pregnant when we left.

The girls wore plaid, pleated skirts, saddle shoes, and white blouses. A mantilla or a Kleenex bobby-pinned to the tops of our heads for daily Mass completed the look. Boys wore khaki uniforms and clip-on bow times. If someone had embroidered their names on the breast pocket and given them a squeegee, they could have gone straight to work at a gas station.

We didn’t have a gym because we got all the exercise we needed from genuflecting and kneeling. The rumor was that the nun who taught us had been pulled out of retirement from a cloistered convent. Whether that was true or not, it was undeniable that the poor woman was outgunned from Day One. We took control, and my two years at Holy Name were a blissful vacation from the scary, hard Department of Defense schools I’d been attending.

Mostly what I studied at Holy Name was how to become a saint. Always an overachiever, as soon as I found out about saints, I started working to become one. That seemed like the ultimate A+ a Catholic girl could get. These were the days when you had to fast for three hours before taking Holy Communion. So six days a week, during a Mass said in Latin, I’d distract myself from a growling stomach and hunger headache by reading stories about the sufferings of saints and martyrs. The gorier the better. 

San Antonio was a conglomeration of parishes that I came to know and love by the light of the candles I followed through her dark streets in evening processions. For the first time in my nomadic life as a perpetual outsider, an eternal New Girl, I felt included, welcomed, part of a community. It was a rare feeling of belonging that turned out to be the perfect preparation for writing my ninth novel, “Above the East China Sea.” 

Above the East China Sea is Austin novelist’s ninth novel. It draws on her years as a military kid in both San Antonio and Okinawa.

“Above the East China Sea” is Sarah Bird’s ninth novel. It draws on her years as a military kid in both San Antonio and Okinawa.

Like “Mommy Club,” this book is also a kind of love letter to another place that affected me almost as deeply as San Antonio: Okinawa, Japan. After my two, blissful years at Holy Name, we were transferred, first to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, then halfway around the world to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu Islands located at the southern tip of the Japanese archipelago. 

It was here that I first heard the story of the Princess Lily Girls. These were 222 native girls from the ages of 12-18 who, during World War II, were plucked out of their elite schools by the Japanese army to serve as nurses. The girls, so sheltered that they would have been expelled for exchanging a note with boy, were sent off to labor in “hospitals” dug into caves. The conditions were horrific. The girls endured constant bombardment, relentless work, abuse by the Japanese army, and near starvation. Through it all, they were sustained by an unshakeable faith in both the mission of the military and the spiritual beliefs of the island that connected and gave them all a deep sense of belonging. 

Because of my years as both a Catholic schoolgirl in San Antonio and a military kid, I immediately related to the story of the Princess Lily Girls. Named for the pins they wore and their intention to spread light and purity into the world, I was pretty sure that, just as I had, these girls wanted to become whatever their versions of saints was.

I spent years researching Okinawa’s astonishing history. I was constantly amazed by what I hadn’t known about this island and her magnificent people. How had I not known that more lives were lost during the Invasion of Okinawan than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined? Or that the invasion was the largest land, sea, air battle in history?

Eventually I took the stories of the Princess Lily Girl’s unparalleled heroism and wove them together with the story of Luz James, another young woman whose destiny is controlled by her country’s military. Luz is a contemporary military kid stationed, as I once was, at Kadena Air Base, whose beloved older sister has just been killed in Afghanistan.

Map of the Japanese Empire at its height in 1943.

Map of the Japanese Empire at its height in 1943.

It was a challenge to braid stories separated by language, culture, and 70 years together. I can’t speak for how well I did, but, thank you Blessed Virgin Mary, the reviews have all been good. In fact, the Chicago Tribune named it an Editor’s Choice and had this to say:

“While so many works of fiction employ a parallel structure and end up feeling like two separate stories that exist in a point-counterpoint, static way on the page, Sarah Bird fully imagines these stories as one richly rewarding novel that spans decades. Though these young women are separated by time and culture, their stories don’t merely run parallel — they reflect and reinforce one another in a rewarding way. . . . This is a big novel of place and ideas, and a finely wrought one with dynamic characters and relationships.”

Writing, researching, and grappling with the stories and issues that propel “Above the East China Sea,” and now, publishing the book and having the joy of talking to readers about it, has been one of the great experiences of my life. And it all started here, following a candle around San Antonio.

I will be talking about and signing copies of “Above the East China Sea” this Sunday, Aug. 24, at The Twig Book Shop from 3 to 5 p.m. A special invite goes out to all Catholic girls and military kids.

*Featured/top image: A photo of Sarah Bird’s Catholic military family taken in 1967, the year they were transferred to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.

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