Facing the Wave by Gretel Ehrlich

Facing the Wave
A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami
Gretel Ehrlich

Vintage Books

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“. . . reveals how a natural disaster can bring out both the best and the worst in a culture.”

When the massive earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan in March 2011 more than just human beings drowned. Livelihoods vanished, hopes died, and the future was forever changed. In Facing the Wave we experience life up close for those who survived that fateful day and continue to suffer the radioactive contamination leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The extent of the devastation is hard to take in. But story by story Ehrlich draws us in and illustrates the tenacity of the people of the Tohoku coast and how they’ve come to cope with the unimaginable. There are the fishermen who fish the ocean for debris and bodies in the early days after the disaster instead of squid. There is the mother who rents and uses a backhoe, searching for the body of her child lost when Ookawa Elementary School was washed away. There is the elderly geisha teaching her special song to geishas from outside the region, which is unheard of, but she realizes it’s the only way to preserve their heritage. There are the superstitious who feel haunted by angry ghosts, forcing them to carry salt for their protection.

With so few untouched by death, the guilt of the tsunami survivors is palatable and their suicide rate high. The depth of the survivors’ hopelessness is almost incomprehensible for those whose faith comforts them with the joy of seeing loved ones again in heaven and knowing they’re not being punished simply for living. In this aspect, Facing the Wave reveals how a natural disaster can bring out both the best and the worst in a culture.

Reviewer: Cindy A. Matthews