The Buddha in the Attic
Julie Otsuka (Adult Historical Fiction)
They came from all over Japan: Yamaguchi, Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Yamanashi, and Kagoshima. Most were virgins ranging in age from just fourteen to thirty-seven years old. Some came from the city and wore stylish clothes while those from the country wore patched and re-dyed kimonos. They all came—from the mountains to the seashore—to board a boat that would take them to America. All were going with a promise and a picture. All were leaving to marry.
Julie Otsuka writes about the “picture brides” (similar to mail-order brides) of the early 1900s who, through a matchmaker and family recommendations, traveled from Japan to marry a fellow countryman in America. The families of the brides were often influenced by money, the brides went to escape poverty and held dreams of a better life, and the grooms were looking for companionship while reaping the benefit of an extra pair of working hands. The women quickly realized the folly of their aspirations and that their lives as migrant workers would define them as no better than slaves. The promises of a picture showing a smiling young man with a hat in his hands standing in front of a white picket fence were quickly replaced with beatings, curfews, and living conditions often unfit for an animal.
Otsuka presents these women’s stories in eight sections: Boat Ride, First Night, Whites, Babies, The Children, Traitor, Last Day, and A Disappearance. She takes her readers from the initial journey to America and then through marriage and childbirth and finally to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese internment camps. We are dragged through an emotional gauntlet yet these disturbing and deeply personal stories lack any kind of emotional teeth. There’s simply nothing to really sink in to due to the choice of the author’s writing style. Otsuka opts to tell her story through first-person collective. Because she paints her story using very wide brushstrokes, we are presented with anywhere from six to twelve lives in the span of a single paragraph. She sacrifices depth for breadth and we end up with prose that reads more like a bulleted presentation. When describing the dreams of the women’s children, she writes, “One wanted to save up money to buy his own farm. One wanted to become a tomato grower like his father. One wanted to become anything but. One wanted to plant a vineyard. One wanted to start his own label. One could not wait until the day she got off the ranch.” And on and on. The vast majority of the book is like this with sentences starting off with “Some of us” or “Most of us” or Many of us”. Only briefly are we allowed some glimpse into the humanity of these women when we get flashes of names like Akiko, Kazuko, Chiyo, and Makiyo. The only time we really get a sense of mourning and loss, ironically enough, is when the Japanese had been driven from their communities and it is their American neighbors who are left to deal with their absence and loss. As they recollect memories of their displaced Japanese neighbors, only then do we get a sense as to who these people were and the impact they had on those around them.
I feel that Otsuka really missed an opportunity by choosing to tell an anonymous and faceless story. Without some figures to latch on to, we fail to form any kind of connection with these women and their ill-fated lives. I feel nothing would have been lost and so much more would have been gained had she decided to focus on three or four individual women and allowed us to follow each of their separate journeys. We would have been able to hope, dream, despair, and mourn with them as they tried to navigate a world that was often cruel, unforgiving, and unfair. Instead, we got Polaroids rather than a movie. We got one-dimensional versus 3D. We got an indistinguishable group and not a living, breathing person.
The title of this book refers to what these women had to leave behind. Instead, it might have been nicer to focus on what these women carried with them: not just a lifetime of pain and hurt and sorrow, but also an abundance of hope and honor and resilience. These women slaved and birthed and suffered and endured because to do otherwise would have brought dishonor to their family and to themselves. Former hi-tech executive and mentor, Peter Strople wrote, “Legacy is not leaving something for people. It’s leaving something in people.” I am grateful for Julie Otsuka for bringing the stories of the “picture brides” to light and although this particular book didn’t resonate with me, these women deserve to have their stories heard so that their legacy is not confined to the written page, but rather should live on within our hearts.
*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com
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