There is not an end date for the March 11, 2011, earthquake that measured 9.0, causing a 30-foot-high tsunami that devastated Japan while overwhelming a nuclear power plant and resulting in the largest radioactive contamination of our oceans in recorded history. The seismic energy released was equal to 600 times the energy we unleashed on Hiroshima in 1945, and the Earth’s axis shifted by 10 centimeters. Six months after the earthquake, a Russian sailing ship reportedly took seven days to negotiate a floating contaminated debris island that was headed to the coast of Alaska, British Columbia and Washington state. We will all be affected in ways that cannot be predicted.

Less than 100 days after the earthquake, and at considerable risk to her health, Gretel Ehrlich traveled to northeastern Japan to bear witness. The author of “The Solace of Open Spaces,” “The Future of Ice” and a dozen other works of various genres immersed herself in the radioactive landscape of ruined crops, wrecked lives and rotting corpses. The quietude contained in “Facing the Wave” is as poetically stirring as it is powerfully heartbreaking. In sum, the book is a masterpiece of narrative reportage that balances Ehrlich’s own reaction with the voices of the victims.

A fisherman: “We’ve been told to move to higher ground, but we’re men of the sea and you can’t tell us to grow vegetables. We have traditions and techniques that have been passed on to us, and we can’t change over to farming just like that.”

A Buddhist abbot: “Since the disaster, some older people have committed suicide. But there’s no reason to do that. We just start from where we are, from whatever the day brings to us.”

“Facing the Wave” shines a light on the best of humankind — the many small heroic acts of courage that act as a balm against the sorrow. The “Fukushima 50,” for instance, are men over the age of 50 who volunteered to enter the radioactive Fukushima Daiichi power plant, “in order to spare younger men from being exposed to serious amounts of contamination.”

Almost a year later, Japan continues the sorrowful work of recovery. More than 30,000 people are dead or missing. In the wake of more recent disasters such as superstorm Sandy, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that befell Japan have receded in the public eye. Ehrlich reminds the reader that even though life is a lonely journey, it is not one of solitude.

“We are alone but adjacent, linked, cantilevered, part of the riprap. We carry the dead and they carry us. There is solace in that, not fear.”


Stephen J. Lyons’ latest book is “The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River.” He is at work on a book about the Driftless Area of the Upper Midwest.