Sarah Bird Reviewed
The Yokota Officers Club
by Sarah Bird
Knopf, 376 pp., $23 In the Root family -- an Air Force family -- everyone has a special talent. Twelve-year-old Buzz is able to place his ankles behind his head and walk on his hands; his twin brother Abner can "do his age times one hundred in sit-ups." Ten-year-old Bosco and her younger brother Bob are able to recite things to an annoyingly accurate and lengthy degree. Bernie, the narrator of this both comic and bittersweet novel, dances, and her overbearing sister (and rival) Kit has a knack for being popular, a commodity that, in a family comprising mainly "class-A social retards," is viewed as something of a blessing and a curse. The mother, who goes by Moe, used to sing, and the father, Major Root, used to be an alpha male among ace spy pilots. When Kit attempts to outdo her own sister in a "dancing contest" -- this book takes place principally in the late Sixties -- it is abundantly clear that in the Root family, laying claim to your talent and defending it is a rite as natural and expected as pausing at seventeen hundred hours every day while "The Star Spangled Banner" plays over the loudspeakers at the air base.
There are specific and tragic reasons why the parents no longer use their talents. Suffice it to say that as the novel opens, Bernie is on a plane that is about to plop her down in Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. She has just completed her freshman year of college in New Mexico -- her first year as a civilian -- and is returning to her family stationed at Kadena. Everyone in the family is a year older, obviously, and many of them are experiencing the massive changes that adolescence ushers in. But even to them, Bernie seems to be the most changed of all: She's not wearing a bra, she looks like a hippie, and Kit thinks she smells pot on her. Bernie would never do something like smoke pot, though, since that would require her to talk to other people. She is preternaturally, painfully shy, and, like all good coming-of-age stories, by the end of the book, she is forced to change herself.
First Bernie must determine why her once-beautiful, vibrant mother slops around in bed all day and rarely talks to her husband, who after 20 years is still only a major. Life in the Root family has vastly changed since the last time Bernie was in Japan, as a more innocent child, and the family was stationed at Yokota Air Base. In Bernie's memory, Yokota is a virtual paradise -- the family got along, mostly, Bernie was able to create a perfume factory in the back yard in proximity to Mount Fuji, and the family's maid, Fumiko, seemed to have an innate understanding of "a child fundamentally displaced." In subtropical Okinawa, there are gargantuan banana spiders, venomous, hungry snakes, and, worst of all, no Fumiko; she has been cruelly banished from working for the Roots.
Like Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, another engaging story told from the female perspective about a pre-Sexual Revolution, hyper-masculine world, The Yokota Officers Club succeeds on several levels. Bird's characters are each fully formed, she renders the setting with lively detail, and there is a quippy, character-informing wit that informs the entire tale and gives it soul. The last quarter of the book, when Bird illustrates why Fumiko was fired, why Major Root isn't allowed to fly, and why Moe is so depressed, is a master touch. In it, Bird displays a crystal-clear perception of the ways in which unchecked, state-sponsored enmity and secrecy ruin the families commissioned to engender the enmity and keep state secrets. But the depiction is so subtle and compassionate and informed, The Yokota Officers Club never reads like a history lesson.