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Review of The Buddha in the Attic

August 30, 2011

 Julie Otsuka’s new novel, The Buddha in the Attic, begins with the arrival of mail order brides from Japan to begin what they think will be a better life in California. As they crossed the ocean in the holds of dreary, lurching ships, they clutched photos of their future husbands and dreamed aloud of their new lives.  Upon arriving, they find that their husbands are not successful business men and they won’t be living in lavish houses as they were led to believe.   The real truth is immediately apparent when they are taken to farms and trained as field workers and for other menial jobs.

The husbands range from dull to abusive:  “They never changed a single diaper.  They never washed a dirty dish. They never touched a broom. In the evening, no matter how tired we were when we came in from the fields, they sat down and read the paper while we cooked dinner for the children and stayed up washing and mending piles of clothes until late.”   To make matters worse, the Japanese immigrants are scorned and subject to extreme prejudice by Americans who resent their numbers and insinuation into a primarily white society.

Eventually, some build better lives for themselves, have children, have their own homes and businesses, and chisel out a small wedge of the American dream.  Otsuka paints an amazingly detailed picture of what their lives were like right down to the dresses they wore and the way they walked when they were trying to blend in, or rather, be invisible.  Their children go to school:  “…they sat in the back of the classroom in their homemade clothes with the Mexicans and spoke in timid faltering voices.  They never raised their hands.  They never smiled.  At recess they huddled together in a corner of the school yard and whispered among themselves in their secret, shameful language.”

But still, all is mostly tolerable until the hysteria of WWII grips the nation and anti-Japanese fervor takes over otherwise logical minds.  A woman wonders if tomorrow will be the day they come for her husband.  She packs her husband’s bag and puts it by the door. Soon thousands are banished to internment camps stripping them of most of their possessions, homes, businesses and the little dignity they have.  They leave not knowing what will become of everything they worked hard for – wondering if they will even survive.

The Buddha in the Attic is not a traditional novel.  There is no narrative arc or climatic scene in which the protagonist has an epiphany.  I found it to be more of a diary of lament or a dirge.  There are no individual characters.  Otsuka effectively uses “we”  instead of “I” to allow many women’s voices to speak of the myriad ways they worked through their sorrow and grief.  Every woman was unique but together they faced the same challenges.  Although this is specifically about the Japanese, it’s easy enough to extrapolate what it might be like for anyone who faces discrimination.
The internment of Japanese-Americans was a dark stain on our nation’s humanitarian record – right up there with our treatment of Native Americans.  It’s almost impossible to grasp that in 1942, over 100,000 Japanese who lived along the Pacific coast were forced into War Relocation Camps.  The rationale for this unfortunate decision was rooted in the fact that we were at war with Japan and “national security” was supposedly at risk.  I have a friend who lived in one of these camps – his brother was born there.  Mike doesn’t talk much about the experience, but I know it probably changed him forever.  The Buddha in the Attic is an important historical account as well as a riveting story.  For a microscopic view of what it was like to be a Japanese mail order bride and to discover what strength and courage look like up close, read The Buddha in the Attic.

Knopf, 2011

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