My neighborhood book group met recently to discuss The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka, a tiny but powerful novel about the experience of Japanese girls who immigrated to the United States in the early 1900’s as “picture brides.” We gave the book one of our highest ratings ever, since every single person enjoyed it (a rare occurrence!).
Otsuka’s unusual novel tells the story of an entire - though diverse - group of women who all traveled by ship from Japan to the United States in the early part of the century toward an unknown future, knowing nothing about their waiting husbands except for a single photo or letter they had received. The author uses a very unusual technique, writing the entire story from a plural first-person, as shown in this first paragraph:
On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years – faded hand-me-downs from our sisters that had been patched and redyed many times. Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or a father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.
You can see that, in addition to the use of the pronoun “we” throughout the novel, she also writes in a very spare, almost poetic prose that helps to tell the stories of an entire generation of women in a scant 129 pages. The novel follows the women from their arrival in California to their dispersal to a wide variety of husbands and through the next twenty years, until the bombing of Pearl Harbor when they were all rushed off to internment camps where their entire culture and population disappeared from the west coast for several years.
The women were dispersed into a wide range of situations with their new husbands: some as very poor migrant farmers who were even worse off here than they’d been in Japan, some as domestic servants to wealthy white people, and some as small business owners in large cities. The novel follows the arc of their lives, through the difficult adjustment to a new culture (some never did adjust), through the early years of marriage (where some found love and some found misery) and the later years of raising children while still working in the fields or the house or the noodle shop or the cleaners.
The author very skillfully shows the common threads of experience through all of these disparate stories, and my book group was all fascinated by the unique perspective. It’s a population none of us knew much about, and we were intrigued to learn how similar some of their experiences in this new world were one to another and to other immigrant populations, despite their very different circumstances. My only minor complaint was that the book felt like it ended abruptly to me, and I would have liked to know more about these women’s lives in the camps and after the war. However, I think, again, that this was an intentional and very clever choice on the part of the author, to show with that abrupt ending how an entire group of people suddenly disappeared from our culture and how the camps served as the end of an era for an entire immigrant population. All in all, we agreed that this very unique and powerful novel was well-written and engaging – highly recommended.