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The Yokota Officers Club: A Novel by Sarah Bird
Knopf - 384 pages

Reviewed by Luciana Lopez

In 1968, Bernadette Marie Root travels to Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan, to spend the summer after her freshman year at the University of New Mexico with her family. Always an outside in the world at large, Bernie’s time away has now given her something of an outsider’s perspective on her own family -including the disintegration that’s occurred since Bernie’s departure a year before. The Yokota Officers Club, the fifth novel from writer Sarah Bird, describes Bernie’s homecoming to Okinawa, and her determination to pierce the carefully guarded secrets that are slowly causing the relationships among her parents and five siblings to deteriorate. Bird’s intimate writing style underscores the strong biographical element to the book.

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One of the consequences of my heavy reading as a child was a tendency to look for narrative hooks and moments of resolution in real life.

Naturally, since reality lacks a page count, there’s rarely a point at which conflicts converge and move toward a joint denouement. When I finally figured out this key difference between literature and life, I was vastly disappointed that characters in books ended at the last page. Happily, I am apparently not the only person who’s ever felt that well-developed works shouldn’t necessarily be tied up by a book’s end. In her fifth novel, The Yokota Officer’s Club, Sarah Bird has constructed a family whose mysteries, relationships and interactions seem to go on after one has closed the cover of the book.

The book itself recalls 'Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood', the 1997 hit from Rebecca Wells. If you sniffled over Siddalee Walker’s recounting of her painful childhood with the secrets her family has tacitly agreed to keep in Ya-Ya, you’ll most likely sniffle over Bird’s protagonist, 18 year old Bernadette Marie Root, as she goes home for the summer after her first year of college and confronts, well, her painful childhood with the secrets her family has tacitly agreed to keep. Nevertheless, despite the points of comparison (even down to the color tones on the book jackets), Yokota stands on its own as a well-written work, graced with strong characterizations. Bird’s deft use of humor softens some of the book’s seriousness, and her distinctive, enjoyable style keeps the story well-paced throughout. In 1968, Bernadette Marie Root, better known as Bernie, is an Air Force brat. She and her five sibs have been moved around approximately once a year ever since the family’s four-year stretch at Yokota Base in Japan until Bernie turned ten. The various moves have strained the family, particularly as a symbol of the waning career of the family patriarch, Mason “Mace” Root. At the book’s opening, Bernie returns to her family, now stationed at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan, after her freshman year at the
University of New Mexico.

While the change in Bernie, the eldest child and therefore the first to leave the military life that fences in the Roots, shocks her family, she herself experiences a similar jolt at their reunion. “I pause for a second to absorb the shock of discovering that five members of my family have been kidnapped and replaced by a troupe of bad actors.” Only Mace, with his obsession with synchronizing the family’s watches (their “family totem,” Bernie observes) “looks precisely the way he did” before Bernie’s absence. It’s Bernie’s year of separation that allows her to perceive the unaddressed puzzles behind her once-close family’s disintegration, as the previously-tidy house becomes disordered and the strained relationship between Mace and Moe (a.k.a. Mohoric, Bernie’s mother) envelops the household. The central enigma Bernie faces is the disappearance from the family’s memory of Fumiko, the Japanese maid who bonded with Moe during the family’s years at Yokota. All pictures of Fumiko have been expurgated from family trunk, and Fumiko’s name has become taboo. When Bernie wins a dance contest and a trip to Tokyo accompanying a has-been comic touring military bases, the enigma comes to a head, as Bernie discovers the truth behind her family’s erosion, including her own pivotal role.

Bird drew heavily on her own life for this book, including such elements as the four years at Yokota, the summer return to Okinawa after a year of college, the dance contest and trip to Tokyo, even the reunion with the old family servant. Bird has since noted that meeting with the Japanese woman who worked for her family “sent me away with questions it would take thirty years and the alchemy of fiction to answer.” The semi-autobiographical nature of this work does a lot toward explaining the pains Bird has taken. Not only are the descriptions full of knowledge of base life, her characters have real weight. As the novel progresses, the humorous and the tragic combine to create a genuineness lacking in less complex characters. Bird has neither liked her characters too much, making them too sympathetic to sin, nor too little, becoming apathetic about their quirks and details. For example, Kit, the middle sister whose beauty and outgoing personality are an anomaly in a family largely lacking social skills, comes through as having more depth of motivation than a lesser writer would have given her, making one of the book’s central observations. “If you’re a bad girl, they punish you by making you invisible. If you’re a good girl, … they reward you by making you invisible. That’s your reward, ghost girl.”

Even relatively minor characters get this treatment. When the children re-name themselves one day, disavowing their Catholic saint names as a cumbersome nomenclature symbolic of their isolation from the “normal” world, Joseph Anthony, the clan’s youngest and “just three at the time, selected Bob, since it was not only a great name and easy to spell but also his favorite aquatic activity.” These strengths are noticeable despite the book’s flaws. The poor Japanese will draw winces from anyone with knowledge of the language. Misspellings like “ohio” for “ohayo” and “skoshi” for “sukoshii” are the hallmark of those who listen to Japanese but fail to a consult dictionary or other resource; these errors are even more noticeable given her otherwise dead-on descriptions of Japan, such as the tropical weather and food. And while the characterization of Mace as cold and withdrawn is necessary to the book’s movement, it nonetheless creates a void in the book that needs to be addressed. Bernie’s three brothers are sufficiently major characters that their responses to their effective fatherlessness could have helped round out the family portrait. The book’s greatest success, though, comes in creating a family that takes on a life independent of the book. Bird refuses to end all the family’s problems with a neat scene of resolution. Instead, the answers to some of Bernie’s questions –why does her father seem to blame Moe for the stagnation of his career? Why does her family so intensely negate Fumiko’s existence? – only raise more issues about Bernie and her family.

It’s possible that Bird will follow up Yokota with a sequel. The story is ongoing, and Yokota’s well crafted and engaging prose will most likely attract a strong audience. While a sequel could disturb the delicately poised feel of potential that Yokota leaves the reader with, I’ll be in line, cash in hand, anyway.

© Luciana Lopez - New York 2001

Luciana herself has lived in Japan, and experienced many of Bird’s descriptions of that country. In addition, she also has experience as a reviewer during her time at the George Mason University poetry MFA program.


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