THE YOKOTA OFFICERS’ CLUB
by Sarah Bird
A good portion of the American population has to be military service dependents, both past and present (and who knows, future). A subsect of those dependents is those who find themselves overseas, and a smaller subsect is those who never get acclimated to the constant change. Sarah Bird, whose charming early book The Boyfriend School became the poorly titled (but still charming) movie Don’t Tell Her It’s Me (before eventually showing up for the home audience with the original book’s title), was a military dependent, and used her memories of her time in Okinawa and in Japan to come up with this novel.
Because I’d read her previous novels and liked them, I was already inclined to like this one, and would have even before I became aware of the topic. But the differences between her memories as a military dependent in Okinawa and mine as a military dependent in Japan are that her father was an officer and mine was a noncom, and she was a white girl speaking little or no Japanese or Okinawan (kudos to her that she notes there’s a difference), and I was a hapa speaking native Japanese.
Reading this book was like seeing a familiar landscape (sort of; I’ve never been to Okinawa), but from another perspective. I spent my childhood in Japan completely comfortable, only feeling uncomfortable once we came back to the US. (Acknowledged at the end is a book by an author named Mary Edwards Wertsch titled Military Brats: Legacies of childhood inside the fortress, also recommended by author Karen Harbaugh, who has a similar background as I do, about what military kids get used to or don’t with the constant moving.) Reading this book was oddly comforting yet oddly jarring, and I know part of that oddness was because this is a story written by an adult about a young adult looking back at specific points in her childhood. I knew those places, even though I’d never been to most of them; I knew many of those people, but the natives never struck me as being foreign because they were, basically, my peeps, even though they never would have thought of me in the same way. (At one point, Bird’s lead character stays at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, and she notes that the structure, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is being taken down, and I had a bit of delight there because that was just about the time my family was there, getting ready to go back to the US. Even as she has her character walking through the place, we were doing the same thing, knowing that history was being destroyed.)
Bird’s character also finds herself revisiting old haunts, since she had lived there years before, but of course finding little or nothing familiar from her childhood. I’ve done that too, but of course she was seeing it as an outsider, always an outsider, but when I went to see old haunts that no longer existed, I felt as though it was a place where I was an insider, which is a whole different feeling.
But this says little about the book itself. It’s all this and more. Were you an Air Force brat? Did you spend time in Okinawa or Japan? Did you grow up in the (by now a cliche to refer to it this way) turbulent 1960s? Or do you like a good read? All these things refer to this book, and I can recommend it with enthusiasm.
COMING UP: Asian Tales and Teller by Cathy Spagnoli, and after that, the latest Walt Longmire mystery by Craig Johnson!