JQ Magazine: Book Review — ‘Up from the Sea’

"If you’re interested in new perspectives of March 11, Up from the Sea is an easy read that might open eyes to the perseverance and strength of Tohoku’s residents." (Crown Books for Young Readers)

“If you’re interested in new perspectives of March 11, Up from the Sea is an easy read that might open eyes to the perseverance and strength of Tohoku’s residents.” (Crown Books for Young Readers)

By Rashaad Jorden (Yamagata-ken, 2008-10) for JQ magazine. A former head of the JETAA Philadelphia Sub-Chapter, Rashaad is a graduate of Leeds Beckett University with a master’s degree in responsible tourism management. For more on his life abroad and enthusiasm for taiko drumming, visit his blog at www.gettingpounded.wordpress.com.

The afternoon of March 11, 2011 brought unprecedented destruction along the Tohoku coast and challenges that many locals have struggled to overcome even up to this day. The survivors’ stories have been told many times since then. Now, young readers get another glimpse into that day and life in the disaster-stricken area.

Inspired by a young boy she met in the disaster zone, Leza Lowitz pieces together the events of that fateful Friday to create Up from the Sea, a fictional story (although based on the events of March 11 and its aftermath) about Kai, a teenager who uses soccer to rally his community. Up from the Sea also includes a trip Kai and others made to New York to commemorate the tenth anniversary of September 11.

Lowitz writes Up from the Sea as a verse novel instead of in prose, which makes the story a much quicker and easier read. It’s divided into three major chapters—each titled after a season of the year—that document the journey from the havoc caused by Mother Nature to an enormously successful soccer game organized in the disaster-stricken community. Kai is the narrator of the story and early on, you get the feel he is setting the stage for a documentary as he provides a brief introduction to his life and the morning of March 11— until 2:46 p.m., when Japan changes forever.

Much of the “Spring” section of Up from the Sea details how Kai fought to survive the earthquake and tsunami. The dramatic scenes depicting the onslaught of Mother Earth’s wrath are movie-scene worthy as Lowitz does an outstanding job of capturing the tension felt by Kai as he fights to survive.

He succeeded—but his mother, grandparents and friend Ryu did not. Upon reading about the hardships experienced by those in the community, like when Kai and others are forced to take shelter in a local auditorium, your mind harkens back to the footage you may have seen of the disaster.

Kai is understandably frustrated missing his family. But his life takes a major turn when his friend Shin finds a soccer ball stuck under a pile near the school. Kai is actually hesitant to embrace playing the sport again, since he is reluctant to do anything perceived to be fun as most of the area is still in ruins and soccer reminds him of both being shunned by teammates due to being biracial and his absentee father living in New York. Kai finally acquiesces to the pleas of another boy named Guts to resume playing soccer, which eventually plays a major part of his life.

But before that, Kai agrees to go to New York with a group of kids from towns ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami to meet children who lost their parents on September 11. After exploring Ground Zero, he attempts to find his father—but with no luck. Kai did leave a note at his father’s apartment just in case he actually found the right place.

Upon returning from Japan, Kai receives a major surprise: a Japanese woman living in Hawaii tracks him down after finding a soccer ball his father bought him on the beach. The ball is sent to Japan and actually arrives during a match a team (Seaside Eleven) he helps form is playing in. The ball has a bit of magic in it and with the help of the wind, he curves it into the net to score Seaside Eleven’s second goal in a 3-2 victory over the Phoenix. But as wonderful as the victory is for Seaside Eleven and for the local community, even better for Kai was that his father actually (and surprisingly) arrives in time to catch the end of a very special match, a life-changing moment for the youngster.

Although Up from the Sea is geared towards young adults, it is a perfect read for JET alums, especially for those who worked in the disaster-stricken region. Many JETs helped bring supplies to those rendered homeless by the disaster and Lowitz makes mentions of the donations that came from all over the world to the region. The trip Kai and other Tohoku youths make to New York to meet with kids who lost their parents on September 11 is a textbook example of the international bonds we want our students to make. As the fifth-year anniversary of the tragedy approaches, the book serves as a perfect reminder of the resiliency and toughness of the Tohoku people as well as the challenges they faced (when a large number of people were sheltered in an auditorium, five onigiri were set aside for every twenty people).

As mentioned earlier, reading Up from the Sea is a bit like watching the numerous documentaries devoted to March 11 and its repercussions; the book might have been enhanced with some illustrations or images of the disaster-stricken region. Although Lowitz clearly states Up from the Sea is a work of fiction, pictures might have added to the enjoyment for readers and given them a better sense of what the day and aftermath were like—especially young adults who have not seen images of March 11 and how communities along the Tohoku coast were rebuilt. In addition, the book’s miraculous ending seems too Hollywood-like.

If you’re interested in new perspectives of March 11, Up from the Sea is an easy read that might open eyes to the perseverance and strength of Tohoku’s residents.

For more on Up from the Sea, click here.

For more JQ magazine book reviews, click here.