by Sarah Bird is a book of incisive wit and poignancy that uses an astonishing clarity of detail in painting its picture of military family life. Through the eyes of narrator Bernie Root, a survivor of the unsettled existence of a military brat, the reader experiences life on a U.
S. military outpost in Japan during the Vietnam War, and in flashback, during the days following the Korean War, when the Cold War was just getting into full swing. Perhaps one should say the reader experiences this life through Bernie’s nose and voice rather than her eyes. Bird excels at injecting not just the visual details, but also the smells and sounds of post-war Japan. Through odors that serve as the title of each succeeding chapter, and through Bernie’s incredibly truthful and true-to-life voice, the novel finds its emotional center.
Bernie, short for Bernadette Marie, is the oldest of six children of her once-beautiful mother, Moe, and her former spy pilot father. She flies to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, and finds that the short year she has been away at college has allowed her the distance to see the disintegrating tangle of ties binding together her once-close family. Bernie begins to realize that the problems of her mother and father began 10 years earlier, during her father’s first tour of duty in Japan. She sees that at the center of this entropic mess is a secret involving the family’s former maid, Fumiko. Bernie stumbles upon answers as she embarks upon a tour of Japanese air bases with a third-rate comic, her prize for winning a dance contest. Bird says this book is a “big, gushy valentine to military families,” and she has the first-hand knowledge to back up that claim, having been raised in a large military family herself. Her novel is about the incredible stress put on the fathers, mothers and children who must all do their jobs to represent the United States. It’s about living a life ostracized from the norm of every other U.
S. civilian and finding the inclusion yearned for only within the family. And it’s about how tenuous yet tenacious love is in such an environment.
This bittersweet comic novel is not a beach book, but it should be on every reader’s list of must-haves for the summer.
Bonnie Arant Ertelt is a writer and editor in Nashville.