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A Novel

Written by Sarah BirdAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Sarah Bird

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: November 24, 2010
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-77575-7
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Sarah Bird’s gutsy, sharp, and touching new novel opens at full speed.

Bernadette "Bernie" Root, military brat, speaks. She has never really noticed what a peculiar bunch of nomads her eight-member Air Force family is (with the exception of her Post Princess sister, Kit), until the summer after her first year of college when she joins them at their new assignment: Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.

Just as Okinawa turns out to be a sorry version of the Japanese paradise Bernie knew in her childhood at Yokota Air Base, her family, especially her once-beautiful mother, Moe, and her former spy-pilot father, Mace, seems to have been in decline since those glory days of the American Raj. Days when her mother was happy and their best friend, Fumiko, now lost to them, was the family’s maid. The worst part of Okinawa for Bernie, though, is realizing how perfectly she fits with her oddball family and how badly she needs to get out.

So when a dance contest first prize, a trip to Japan,offers a chance to escape, she takes it, playing second banana to a third-rate comedian on a tour of Japan’s military bases. At their grand finale at the Yokota Officers’ Club, Fumiko finally reappears, and Bernie discovers the terrible price that is paid when the secrets nations hide end up buried within families.

A brilliantly appealing novel whose energy, wit, and feeling have won for it (see back of the jacket) extraordinary advance praise.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

White House

Washington, D.C.

Dear Dependents of the United States Air Force:

Welcome to your new duty assignment, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.

Okinawa is the principal island of the 160 islands that make up the Ryukyu archipelago. Only 67 miles long and from 2 to 17 miles wide, Okinawa is often referred to as the "Keystone of the Pacific" because of its strategic Far East location roughly 900 miles from Tokyo, Manila, Seoul, and Hong Kong.

Originally an independent nation, Okinawa has endured long periods of both Chinese and Japanese domination. After World War II, the island remained under U.S. military control. The United States will continue its custodianship as long as conditions of threat and tension exist in the Far East.

Bear in mind as you begin your tour that the serviceman's family is just as much a representative of the United States Government as the serviceman himself.

Your President and Commander in Chief,

Lyndon Baines Johnson

On the map on the back of the pamphlet, Japan resembles a horned caterpillar rearing up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. My destination, the Ryukyu Islands, trails behind like a scatter of droppings. We've been in the air for seventeen hours. Sheets of rain snake across the plastic pane of the window next to me. A light on the wing blinks red in the night. Lulled by the drone of the jet engines taking me to join my family stationed on Kadena Air Base, I slide back into the anesthetized stupor that travel always induces.

Phenobarbital, that was my mother, Moe's, drug of choice for traveling with six children packed into a station wagon when we PCS'd--Permanent Change of Station--six times in eight years. We, her children, took the drug, not Moe. A nurse, she administered the meticulously titrated doses in tiny chips that floated like specks of goldfish food in our cups of apple juice.

"How else was I supposed to keep you from murdering each other?" Moe had answered when I inquired about the peculiar lassitude that always seemed to overtake us upon departing Maxwell Air Force Base, or Travis, or Harlingen, or Brooks, or Kirtland, or Mountain Home Air Force Base. Especially Mountain Home. All I remember about leaving that base was pulling out of Boise, Idaho, with my breath freezing in the predawn mountain chill and regaining consciousness outside of Tonopah, Nevada, with a bib of drool and my nasal linings dried to corn flakes.

"You drugged us? Your children? You drugged us?"

"I thought about running a hose in from the exhaust pipe. That really would have quieted you down."

"You drugged us?"

"Think about it, Bernie. Six kids, two of them in diapers when we transferred out of Japan, crammed into a station wagon with the luggage strapped on top and a maniac behind the wheel who wouldn't stop unless you put a gun to his head. Me passing around the bologna sandwiches and the potty chair, sprinkling the cars behind us when the potty can got full. And the whole time I'm wrestling with a map the size of the Magna Carta and trying to navigate for a guy used to getting directions off a radar screen who keeps barking at me to do something about my children. No, I didn't have a lot of patience left to deal with Kit screaming about you 'breathing' on her or you screaming about Kit 'looking' at you or the twins hammering monkey bumps and noogies and X no-backs into each other and Bosco wailing about whatever hamster or turtle or corn snake she had to leave behind at the last base and Bob reenacting entire episodes Clutch Cargo and someone, usually you, barfing."

"Yeah, but what if you've turned us all into junkies?"

"Well, if I have, all I can say is that I did the best I knew how and you lived to tell the tale. That's all I can say."

It was during an unmedicated moment on the long hot drive out of Idaho that we all, all us sibs, realized we hated our ultra-Hibernian Catholic names. No one else at our new schools would be named after saints famous for being enucleated or having their tongues plucked out with pliers. We wanted regular names. So, as Moe passed around the potty seat, we rechristened ourselves with the most normal, most American names we could each think of. The twins, Frances Xavier and Bryan Patrick, chose Buzz and Abner. Joseph Anthony, 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. No one wanted me to change Bernie. Mary Colleen, our youngest sister, declared that henceforth she would be known as Nancy, her book-loving soul released in ecstasy at the thought of sharing Nancy Drew's name.

"Nancy?" We'd all hooted in unison. We'd already given her the perfect name, Bosco, when she was two and loved Bosco Chocolate Syrup, and we weren't swapping it for some girl detective in a roadster.

"Okay," Bosco had agreed. "But in my mind I'm still calling myself Nancy, and you can't stop me."

"The name represents the self," my father said from the driver's seat, flicking a white Tums out of a foil roll into his mouth. "A rejection of the name represents a rejection of the self. You all hate yourselves."

We exchanged fiendish looks and had to agree. "Yeah, we all hate ourselves."

"Eileen is the only one showing any sense."

But it wasn't sense my middler sister was showing; it was concentration. She glowed like a full-immersion Baptist bursting to the surface of the tank when she finally revealed, "My new name is Kitty."

"Kitty?" Moe echoed.

"Okay, Kit. Kit Root."

As Moe dealt out Sioux Bee honey and peanut butter sandwiches, I glanced at Buzz, Abner, Bob, and Bosco and wondered what we'd unloosed. It was clear that Eileen wasn't getting the joke. Worse, with her platinum-blond hair and Siamese-cat blue eyes, the name Kit fit her too well.

At our new schools, we all registered under our real names and only called one another Buzz, Abner, Bob, Bosco, and Bernie at home. But Eileen died that day and never again answered to anything, anywhere, except Kit.

Maybe it was the phenobarbital; still, even without chemical amendments, moving, the part after the packers left but before I became the new girl, a spot I tended to occupy until the packers came again, was always the coziest time in my life. Just me and the sibs and Moe, sealed up in our mobile incubator hurtling down the highway, stuck to the vinyl seat covers, glued to one another with sweat, everyone oozing together, breathing the breaths a sister or brother had exhaled a hundred miles ago. Just us. No outsiders. Outsiders--which is to say, anyone that Moe had not brought into this world--and my family did not mix. We'd only allowed an outsider into the family once.

Fumiko. Of course I'm thinking about Fumiko again. The first time I crossed the Pacific I was six years old, twelve years ago, and heading for the horned caterpillar itself, not the droppings. Fumiko became part of our family the day we landed in Japan and was one of us for four years. Bob hadn't even been born when we PCS'd out of Japan eight years ago, and Bosco was barely two, so they don't remember Fumiko at all. The twins, who'd hung on to her like orangutan babies for the first three years of their lives, have no memory of her either. Kit probably does, though it's hard to tell since Kit speaks to me as little as possible and Fumiko's name was never mentioned again after we left Japan anyway.

But I know Moe remembers Fumiko, and our father, and me--of course, me. Of course I remember Fumiko.

The Okinawa-bound plane hits an air pocket and belly-flops a few hundred feet. My seatmate, Tammi, grips my arm, digging her pearlized pink nails into my flesh. Tammi looks only slightly older than my sister Kit, who is seventeen. But Tammi is on her way to Okinawa so that her baby daughter, Brandi, can meet her father for the first time. The cabin lights flicker, and Tammi and I look to the front of the plane to see if the stewardi are freaking in any manifest way.

"The pilot just rotated out of Nam." Tammi has made this observation every time the plane wobbled for the past seventeen hours since we left Travis. The implication is that if a pilot is good enough to survive Vietnam, surely he can get a planeload of dependents, mostly wives and small children traveling Space Available, delivered safely to Okinawa.

Tammi looks the way my two sisters and three brothers, certainly my parents, expect me to look. A year ago, they'd left me behind at the University of New Mexico when my father was transferred to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. 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 coordinating pleated kilts held closed with an oversize 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 Heaven Sent and had discarded deodorant, depilation, and undergarments altogether.

For the past year, I had breathed civilian oxygen for the first time in my life. It caused me to forget that I was the daughter of Major Mason Patrick Root, just as much a representative of the United States as the serviceman himself. It caused me to join an antiwar group on campus, Damsels in Dissent.

I started to remember who I was at Travis Air Force Base, where I had to hang around reading The Confessions of Nat Turner while my request for a Space A flight worked its way through MATS. Just the acronyms for Space Available and Military Air Transport System were enough to resuscitate me with the air I'd inhaled for the past eighteen years. I was returning to a world where officer fathers lost their jobs when sons didn't mow the lawn, when daughters dated GIs, or when mothers misbehaved too often at Happy Hour. Who knew what happened when offspring allied themselves with groups that advised draftees to swallow balls of tinfoil and put laundry detergent in their armpits to fool induction center doctors?

As we fly deeper and deeper into a world that is entirely military, I push that question out of my mind even further than I bury the memory of Fumiko. I've long since finished with Nat Turner and, desperate for the narcotizing effect of moving my eyes across print, I start on the pamphlet again. I don't get very far before lightning flashes outside the window. Almost simultaneously, thunder booms. Baby Brandi trembles, sucks her lip in, and wails. A crack of lightning explodes, and the clouds outside are illuminated in a battlefield flash of pale violet and gray.

Finally, the clouds part, and far below there is, at last, something visible in the darkness. Like a handkerchief tossed onto an endless field of mud, the island of Okinawa appears in the galaxy of black that is the night and the Pacific Ocean.

It seems impossible that they are all down there: my parents; Kit; the twins, Buzz and Abner; my little sister and brother, Bosco and Bob. It seems even more improbable that this plane is going to land on such a minute button of light.

Abruptly the plane slews to the side so violently that luggage bins pop open and diaper bags and duffels shoot into the air. All the babies and children cry. The stewardesses at the front are ashen-faced and stare at each other, wide-eyed, stricken. The smell of vomit, dirty diapers, and fear spikes through the cabin.

The older stewardess speaks into a microphone. "Remain in your seats with your seat belts fastened." She has on chalky lipstick that makes her teeth look yellow. She tries to get the younger stewardess up to help her stuff bags back into overhead bins, but the younger one shakes her head and tightens the belt holding her into her seat facing us. Seeing open fear on a stewardess's face ignites panic in the cabin. The older stewardess crimps her lips in disgust and wades into the aisle.

Lightning flashes continuously on all sides. A bolt crackles against the plane. Women scream as the thunder explodes. The older stewardess tries to speak through her microphone, but a roar of static is all that comes out.

Mascara-blackened tears streak Tammi's cheeks.

The woman behind me begins to pant as if she were giving birth. Another woman sitting on the aisle turns in her seat and tells us in a weirdly conversational tone, "Pray, everyone, okay? Just pray to Jesus."

But I am already praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She's much more likely to be interested in a plane filled with mothers and children.

The plane bucks violently and the brave stewardess is thrown to the floor. The panting woman behind me screams like a sleeper trying to wake from the nightmare of her own death. Full-scale panic breaks out, with all the dependent wives and all their children sobbing and ululating like Berbers.

Tammi turns to me and, in a voice as calm as if she were reporting how much apples were selling for at the base commissary, tells me, "We're going to die."

On the plane, all noise and all smells stop. Next to me, Tammi's face is red and squinched up from crying, but all I hear is the roar of an airplane's engine. I look around and see the older stewardess fight to get to her feet and the woman who wanted us all to pray to Jesus snatch at her so the stewardess falls down again, but I hear nothing.

Once again, I am the overwrought, unhealthily imaginative child prone to nervous attacks and stomach disorders with a neurotic attachment to my mother and a dangerous dependence upon sugar that I was on my first trip over these waters, and I understand that we are seconds away from going down in a storm over the East China Sea. That everyone will die except for the cowardly young stewardess, who will trample a set of twins and the pilot to escape before the plane sinks, sucking everyone else into the night-black sea.


From the Hardcover edition.
Sarah Bird|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Sarah Bird

Sarah Bird - The Yokota Officers Club

Photo © Matt Lankes

Sarah Bird is the author of The Yokota Officers Club and eight other novels. She grew up on air force bases around the world and now makes her home in Austin, Texas. She is a columnist for Texas Monthly and has contributed to other magazines, including O, The Oprah Magazine; The New York Times Magazine and Real Simple.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Sarah Bird

Sarah Bird, in Austin, has a long phone chat with her mother, Colista
Bird, and two sisters, Kay and Martha, who are all in Albuquerque
curled around a speaker phone.

Sarah: You guys just had brunch on the patio? WAAAHHH!! I wish I
could have been there. What did you have?

Martha: Breakfast burritos--

Kay: --and mimosas--

Martha: --and strawberries--

Mom: --and mimosas!

Laughter.

Sarah: So, you're telling me you're all baked.

Kay: Lightly toasted.

Laughter.

Sarah: Okay, well get it together; we're supposed to be talking about
this book inspired by our family.

Kay: Book? You wrote a book? You write? When did this start?

Mom: I thought you were demonstrating electric scissors at Sears. (A
job Sarah had during Christmas break her junior year
.)

Kay: Yeah, you should be about ready to retire now.

Martha: Okay, we should talk about the book.

Kay: That's Martha. She's The Nice One.

Reek-reek, Reek-reek.


Sarah: What's that sound?

Martha: That's Kay. She's making the brown-nose sign at me.

Sarah: All right, questions. Or, actually, I hope this can be more of a
conversation. Of course, we've talked a ton about the book. You all
were reading and approving rough drafts while I was writing it, but
I'd love to ask some questions and get "official" answers. So, first
question: Mom, how on earth could you have let me go off for two
weeks to Tokyo with a pinkie-ringed comedian?

Laughter.


Mom: That's a good question. I musta been out of my mind.

Sarah: No, really.

Mom: Well, you remember, after you won this contest and
announced you were going, we all went over to his house. He
promised he was going to take his maid along as a chaperone.

Sarah: His "maid"? She was his girlfriend, concubine, something.

Mom: Well, he told us she was his maid, and he swore on his mother's
grave that there wouldn't be any funny business of any kind. Then
he said, "Why are you asking me all these questions? You're acting
like I'm some kind of white slaver." And I said, "Well, I want to
make sure you aren't a white slaver." (Laughs.) Sarah, it wasn't a
matter of me "letting" you go. It was a question of you coming
home and telling us you were going.

Sarah: So much for the dictatorial military family.

Kay: Since I was seven at the time, I don't remember much of this
very clearly. Did Mom take you to a sew girl to have a costume
made?

Mom: Oh no, the sew girls came to the house.

Sarah: That's right. I had my characters go to her in the book so that
we could have a little tour through lovely downtown Koza.

Mom: Yes. We had these very short costumes made, and then you
proceeded to whack off about another foot.

Martha: So they went from very short to very, very short.

Silence.

Sarah: I'm not not saying anything; I'm writing furiously.

Kay: Every word's a gem.

Reek-reek, Reek-reek.

Kay: Now Martha's calling me a brown-nose.

Sarah: Everyone always asks if I really had a sister like Kit. Does anyone
ever assume that one of you was Kit? And, if so, I'm very sorry.

Martha: Well, I guess because chronologically it would have been
me, people sometimes act like they have the inside story on my
life. That I'm really Kit. Oh, what a joke that is!

Sarah: Yeah, we all know that Kay was really Kit. (Laughs.)

Kay: I was Kit? You were Kit!

Sarah: Right. Remember my program I instituted in high school? I
made myself speak to one person every day who was not a member
of my family? "May I borrow your pencil?" "Do you know what
time it is?"

Martha: More important, who was Bosco?

Kay: And the answer is . . .

Martha & Kay: . . . YOU were Bosco!

Sarah: Maybe the obsessive, anxiety-ridden, noodgy parts of Bosco
are me, but the sweetness--I really modeled that on my little sisters.
You guys were such sweet little girls.

Reek-reek. Reek-reek.


Sarah: Who did that?! Who gave me the brown-nose noise? Okay,
come on, questions.

Kay: Yeah, I have a question: Did the comedian guy really hit on you?

Sarah: Yes.

Martha, Kay, & Mom: Eeeee-YUGG!

Sarah: I know. And he really did tell me that he shot blanks.

Kay: And that's what made the difference. Not just that he's a big, fat,
greasy, fifth-rate comedian. But he's a big, fat, greasy fifth-rate
comedian who--

Kay & Martha: --shoots blanks!!

Sarah: Yeah, how did I resist?

Kay: Hey, Sarah, guess who's coming to Isleta Pueblo Casino?

Sarah: Uh . . . Captain and Tenille?

Kay: Close, Tom Jones!

Sarah: Tom Jones? Oh, now, that's sad. Are you gonna go?

Kay: The only way I'd go is if you come with me.

Sarah: When's he gonna be at the Pweb?

Kay: May.

Sarah: Gotta miss Tom. I'm not coming until June.

Martha: You know, Tom's schedule seems pretty open these days.
We'll get him to stay over for you.

Kay: Yeah, he can move in with Mom. Bring in her breakfast tray.
(Sings) What's new, pussycat? Woo-oo-woo-oo-woo-woo.

Martha: Tom, please, close your robe.

Sarah: Yeah, Mom'll be zinging her undies at him.

Kay: Right, suds these out, Tom.

Sarah: How many mimosas did you all have?

Mom: Counting the ones we're drinking right now?

Laughter.

Sarah: The book, this book I wrote . . .

Kay: Mom, since I wasn't even born when we were in Japan, it was
interesting for me to read that you had this whole life where Dad
would come home and you couldn't say, "Hi, dear, how was your
day?" He couldn't talk about his work and, I assume, you knew it
was dangerous. What was that like?

Mom: Kinda scary.

Kay: When he'd leave on a mission, would you even know when he
was coming back?

Mom: Newp.

Sarah: How much did you know?

Mom: I knew they'd turned in a couple of May Days. Been a few missions
when no one thought they were gonna make it home. That
other crews in the squadron hadn't made it home.

Sarah: Did Dad talk about that?

Mom: No, not directly. He couldn't. But he'd be shook up, drink a
little more than usual, and really get into the family thing in a big
way. But the scariest part of it was when there were casualties. I'm
telling you, the way they made those families disappear . . .

Sarah: The families of the men who--

Mom: --didn't come home. Boy, they were gone overnight.

Sarah: I remember that. How the little girl who'd been sitting next to
you the day before, coloring in the route Vasco da Gama took
to the New World, was just gone with no explanation. One of the
hardest things to convey in the book was how it never occurred to
you to even ask what happened.

Kay: Back to the Go-Go Years, how did it feel going back after that
experience?

Sarah: You mean back to UNM?

Kay: Yes, were you missing the little people?

Sarah: (Laughs) Right. That whole experience was so removed from
my real life. The only way I could do it was knowing for absolute
certain that no one I knew would ever see me. I never mentioned
it much once it was over. Especially not after I became a fiction
writer. "I was a go-go dancer in Tokyo." Sounds so completely
made up. What about you guys? What was it like for you coming
back from Okinawa?

Mom: Like being let out of suspended animation after almost three
years.

Kay: All I wanted to do was eat American food: Sweet Tarts, Burger
Chef--

Martha: Remember that neighbor of ours who brought us back a loaf
of Wonder bread? It was supposed to be such a giant treat. Reeked
of jet fuel. And the chocolate? All the chocolate from "the World"
was all melted and looked like it had sat on a runway in Guam for a
few days, melting in the sun.

Kay: Didn't stop us though, did it?

Sarah: What has been the reaction of your friends and people you
know to the book?

Kay: You're forgetting, Sarah, we don't know people. We're still insulated,
living in our own little world. Seriously, it's been favorable
but a little cautious. People aren't sure what's true.

Sarah: Okay, forget other people. What was it like for you to read the
book?

Kay: It was really moving. Much more so than I thought it would
be, especially the pieces of Mom that you captured and brought
back.

Martha: I liked how it re-created the feel of the family. I know it
wasn't a history of our family, but it all seemed so familiar. I sure
knew where the original threads came from, and that made me
like it all the more.

Kay: It was also reassuring to me.

Sarah: How?

Kay: Just that my sense of not belonging had a reason, and that lots
and lots of other people felt the same way.

Mom: Of course, I always tried to figure out what was reality and
what was just a figment of your imagination. It brought back a lot
of memories. Like it was happening all over again.

Sarah: Anything in particular?

Mom: I tried to remember if I disliked the wives that much or if they
disliked me that much. I do remember feeling like I was sort of an
outcast.

Kay: So that part was true?

Mom: Well, I certainly was an outcast when I took that job as school
nurse at Kadena Elementary on Okinawa. I definitely was made to
feel that I'd deserted the ranks. The president of the Wives Club
would call and ask if I could "pour" between the hours of two and
four, when some general's wife was going to be in town.

Kay: "Pour"?

Martha: At a tea.

Kay: Oh, so mostly you'd just try and remember which cup your shot
of bourbon was in.

Mom: You needed one at those affairs. I'd tell them I worked
between the hours of two and four, and there would be a very long
silence. Working? An officer's wife? Horrors!

Kay: What did you think about Moe?

Mom: Well, she's got to be one of the worst housekeepers in history.

Kay: Funny you should pick up on that. I don't recall housekeeping
being a big thing for you. Did you like Moe?

Mom: Oh yeah.

Martha: Sarah, are you ever asked, given that so much of the book is
true, why you didn't just write a memoir?

Sarah: Yeah, and I tell them to mind their own freaking business.
Actually, I never really wanted to write a memoir for a couple of
reasons. The first is that, as anyone who's ever had a sister or
brother will tell you, at some point after you're grown, you start
exchanging memories and you wonder, "Did we grow up in the
same family? Did we eat the same bowls of cereal and watch the
same cartoons?" So I didn't want to write The Official History of
Our Family for that reason. But also I wanted to go beyond the
puny details of my own puny life and try to tell a bigger story.

Martha: Which you did with Fumiko. I know I've told you this before,
but that was my favorite part. I couldn't put the book down.

Sarah: Any reason why?

Kay: Yeah, it was just good writing.

Martha: Sarah, I have a comment: I think you made it real clear in the
book that moving so much, always being uprooted, always being
the "new kid," made the family incredibly tight.

Mom: It was good that during all these troop movements, we took our
own troop with us!

Kay: Mom, you've always emphasized us sticking together, being
friends. Was that because of who you were or because we moved
so much.

Mom: Probably a bit of both. It's always been important to me that
you guys were friends. A lot of times you had to be friends cuz
there wasn't gonna be anybody else!

Martha: And also no one else outside our family "got" us. I clearly
remember learning that I couldn't tell the same joke outside the
family that was funny inside the family. People would just think
you're weird.

Kay: That hasn't changed much.

Martha: Have you learned anything about our family from writing the
book?

Kay: Has your view of the family changed?

Sarah: Well put. Very good question.

Kay: I used to be a reporter.

Sarah: And it shows. For me the great gift of this book was learning
about Dad, about his reconnaissance work. So much of it I'd
always taken for granted. Like the Distinguished Flying Cross--I
remember when he got that. But since all those missions were
classified, it was never specified what he got it for, so I just
assumed it was something all the dads got. For perfect attendance
or something. It wasn't until I did the research for this book that I
found out a DFC is just one step below a Medal of Honor, and that
it is incredibly rare to receive one in peacetime and even more
unusual for the flyer to be alive to receive it.

Mom: I hope you know how very proud he was of you.

Kay: Incredibly proud.

Sarah: One of the important moments of my life was that night after
I'd sent you all the manuscript and he got on the line. I was so nervous.
He said, "Well, I've read the book." Then there was this big
dramatic pause, and my heart stops. He goes on and says, "And I
think it's a magnificent achievement. I'm very proud of you." That
still undoes me. It was like something out of a made for TV movie.
One of those utterly perfect moments that you don't think happens
in real life. I'm so grateful it did. I loved what he appreciated
about the book. He kept asking how I'd come to understand so
well how political a military career is, and how I'd gotten the information
about the kind of reconnaissance work he did, since he
would never talk specifically about the missions he'd been on.
Much of that material had been declassified by the time I was
doing the research, and I was reading books, reading about missions
that I'm certain if he wasn't actually on, he knew the men
who were. I'd tell him stories from the books and say, "Dad, look,
it's declassified. You can talk about your missions. Tell me how you
got the DFC. These other guys are writing books." I'll never forget
his answer: "That's their choice. I took the oath." "I took the oath,"
that level of loyalty, that complete lack of cynicism--it awes me.

Mom: Well, when you were doing the research, he told you stories
that I'd never heard.

Sarah: That was wonderful, that we had something we could talk
about.

Mom: I think it brought you two a lot closer together, because I think
you both were looking for a way to be closer.

Martha: It got to the core of his career.

Kay: The core of his identity, his rules of honor and behavior were so
in step with the military. You're loyal, you don't ask questions.
Sarah: But I also think that his sense of humor, that subversive sense
of humor that he passed on to us, was how he was able to accept
that life.

Mom: I guess you need to write an epilogue.

Sarah: What would that be?

Mom: You could tell what happened to all the Roots: Bernie is teaching
English, Bob is a nuclear physicist, the twins are doing time.

Sarah: Great idea. I'll write that up. Okay, anything anyone wants to
add? Subtract? I'm gonna write this up for posterity.

Kay: Oh, Sarah, didn't I mention? This is all off the record.

Sarah: Talk to my lawyer.

Kay: Talk to my lawyer!

Sarah: Bye, babies, I love you. Thank you.

Reek-reek, Reek-reek.


Dedicated to Lt. Col. John Aaron Bird
June 12, 1920--October 1, 2001
The Yokota Officers Club

Author Q&A

View photographs and images from the era of the Yokota Officers Club.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“SARAH BIRD WRITES FICTION WITH SUCH ENERGY AND SNAP, HER NOVELS SEEM TO BE IN MOTION. . . . There’s a wheelbarrow of talent in the writer who can keep a reader laughing right up to the moment of startled apprehension when the depth of sorrow in the family’s history becomes clear.”
The Dallas Morning News

“SWEET, POWERFUL, AND TERRIFYING, Sarah Bird’s talent . . . [is] nothing less than wondrous. This book is a beautiful and breathtaking treasure.”
–RICK BASS

“A LOVELY READ . . . [This novel] is a coming-of-age story, but one so ably fashioned, so tender at its core, that it can touch off both youthful longings and mature regrets in any reader with the slightest susceptibility to either.”
New York Daily News




Awards

NOMINEE New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Smells play a major role in The Yokota Officers Club. They are
even used as titles for each chapter. What effect did they have on
you as a reader?

2. The central image/metaphor of the book is the perfume factory.
At the end of the book, Bernie says: "That honeysuckle is but
one link in an endless limbic chain that contains all the smells
of my family and of our life together." Then she goes on to
name all the smells in the book, concluding that "each smell
is a blossom that combines with all the other smells the same
way real flowers would in a real perfume factory where the days
of sunshine and growing, the days of storm and drought, the
times of plenty, times of want, what the flowers got, what they
didn't get, they're all squeezed together under preposterous
pressure or boiled or tinctured or distilled into a few drops of a
smell so beautiful it can make you remember everything." Do
you agree with this metaphor of how family unity/memories are
created?

3. Understanding what you do about Moe, Macon, Fumiko, and
Bernie, is there anything any of them could have done to change
their fate?

4. Are the pressures a military life puts on soldiers--particularly the
kind of military life Macon Root had, involving highly classified,
highly dangerous missions--compatible with being a warm and
loving spouse? Parent?

5. Have you known any military families? How much did you know
about their lives? Did the novel give you a greater appreciation of
those lives?

6. It seems that military brats enjoyed their peripatetic childhoods
in direct relation to how extroverted they were. The more outgoing
they naturally were, the more they thrived on the constant
moving. How do you think you would have fared as a military
child? As a military wife?

7. Have you ever had an experience similar to the one Bernie had
when you return to the scene of a childhood memory and find it
strangely shrunken or diminished in some way? How is this idea
of a diminution, of a degradation, of, in some cases, a fall from
grace, carried out in other ways in the book? In Bernie's experience
of Okinawa as contrasted with her memories of Japan? In
Mace's career? In the military in general from World War II to
the Vietnam War? In Moe's experience both with the military and
with her marriage?

8. Did you ever reveal a secret as a child? What were the consequences?
Can Bernie or any child of that age be held responsible
for unkept secrets?

9. Moe and Mace seem to have come to a stalemate in their marriage.
Who is responsible? What do you predict will happen to
them? What do you think should happen?

10. Contrast the two mothers in the book, Moe and Fumiko's mother.
How does each one react to the stresses placed upon her and her
family by their respective countries?

11. One of the themes of the novel is silence, the silence of men flying
reconnaissance missions, but more especially the silence of
the women around them. How does each of these characters find
her voice: Bernie? Moe? Fumiko?

12. This novel straddles the line between fiction and memoir. Does it
take the best from each approach or the worst? What do you like
and dislike about the two different approaches?

13. Did you believe that Mace and Fumiko had had an affair? Were
you relieved that they hadn't?

14. Since Bernie could not have ever seen her father acting as
Wingo's co-pilot, how is the crucial relationship they had in flight
demonstrated?

15. Humor and tragedy collide throughout the novel. Do you prefer
fiction that blends these parts of life or keeps them separate?


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