The narrator of the story is Bernie (short for Bernadette), the 18-year old eldest daughter of the family, who is traveling from her freshman year of college in New Mexico to meet back up with her family in their latest location, Okinawa. The trip brings back memories of Bernie’s first voyage to Japan, when she was just six years old, and her family was moving to the Yokota Air Base. Throughout the novel, the action flips back and forth between the present and the past, as Bernie tries to navigate her family’s rocky present life and reflects on events that happened in Yokota that forever changed her family.
I loved the novel’s setting in the 60’s, with ample references to the fashions and pop culture of that time. Here, Bernie is wondering what her family will think when they see her after her year away:
“They’d said good-bye to a sister, a daughter who set her Breck-washed hair into a flip on pink foam rollers. Who wore Villager blouses with coordinated pleated kilts held closed with an oversized gold pin above the knee. Who had a pair of tortoiseshell cat’s-eye glasses correcting her vision, a white cotton circular-stitched brassiere shielding her breasts, Weejun loafers covering her clean feet, and Heaven Sent cologne perfuming her thoroughly deodorized and depilated self.
When I stepped off the plane, they would behold a vagrant in Levi’s with peace sign patches stitched to her ass and hems frayed to a dirty fringe from being trod upon by a pair of water-buffalo-hide sandals held on by one ring around the big toe. Who parted her straight hair in the middle and left it to hang lank as old drapes on either side of a groovy new pair of John Lennon wire rims. Who’d substituted patchouli oil for Wind Song perfume and had discarded deodorant, depilation, and undergarments altogether.”
Can’t you just picture the before and after shots of Bernie?? I used to sleep in those pink foam rollers (not very comfortably!), and I remember the buffalo-hide sandals with the leather toe ring and the smell of patchouli oil. The author brings this era alive on every page.
What most impressed me about this novel was Bird’s talent for weaving together both humor and sadness into one cohesive story. Bernie arrives in Okinawa to find her family is falling apart; bit by tiny bit, the reader comes to understand how things used to be and sees how things are now. Bernie was so young when things fell apart in Yokota that she really doesn’t understand what happened, so she is putting together the pieces of the puzzle alongside the reader. There is tragedy here, especially in the post-WWII passages, but also humor. I love novels like this that reflect real life – joys and sorrows, happiness and pain – because that’s how life, and families, really are. This was my first novel of Bird's, and I definitely want to read more.