This compelling story of family, betrayal, and memory starts out in the late 1960s as 18-year-old Bernie is flying to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa to visit her family after her first year at college. She grew up in an Air Force family, under the shadow of larger-than-life Major Mace Root, and popular and beautiful younger sister, Kit. Now she has been “breathing civilian air” for a year and has joined a peace group, Damsels in Dissent. Her large family are astonished at their first sight of her at the airport in tattered jeans with peace symbols and no bra. She, in return, is astonished at how badly her family is dealing with their new assignment, from her teenage sister’s open rebellion to her younger sister’s anxiety to her mother’s cupboard full of Valium.
The story moves forwards and backwards in time from the 1960s to the 1940s, with poignant descriptions of the plight of Japanese civilians in the immediate aftermath of World War II when work, shelter, and food were in short supply. Slowly the picture is revealed of Bernie’s past and the book explores the nature of blame, responsibility, and human ties as Bernie comes to a wrenching realization about the triggers of her family’s disintegration eight years earlier during their posting to Yokota, Japan.
The Yokota Officers Club does a wonderful job at capturing a slice of military family life, especially the isolation of Bernie and all her siblings, except popular Kit. A myriad of details of military life are scattered throughout, some of which are still pertinent for military families today, such as the frequent relocations. Bernie calls the souvenirs of bases where her family have lived “the spoils” of military life, particularly “the set of three framed fans that have hung of the wall in the hallways of all the houses we lived in since Fussa.” My family lived in Europe rather than Asia so we lean more towards cuckoo clocks and wooden shoes than ornamental fans, although in North Dakota we had the same obscure brass Turkish camel wind chime as our neighbors. Other details such as a family losing their jobs for not mowing the lawn are dated, as a base family will still get a notice about a messy yard, but the military is less strict. And some things have completely changed: “Wives of majors who wish to make colonel wear heels and hose in public.”
In turns both funny and sad, The Yokota Officers Club is a story about loyalty – to family and to country, and to people who surround us. It is based on Sarah Bird’s own childhood and she dedicates the book to her family – her Lieutenant Colonel father, nurse mother and three brothers and two sisters, just like Bernie’s family. But in the acknowledgements she adds, “to my family who… understood and accepted my capricious weaving of fiction through our shared past.” Try The Yokota Officers Club for an emotional, character driven read about family relations.
Check the WRL catalog for The Yokota Officers Club.