The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: 2011
Pages: 129
Source: Library

The Short Version:
The story of a group of Japanese women who came to the US in the early 1900’s as “picture brides” and settled in California through their internment during World War II.

Why I Read It:
When Meghan at Medieval Bookworm was talking about this book on Twitter one day I became intrigued and requested it from the library. There was quite a long list of hold requests already but it was worth the wait.

The Book:
This is the story of many women without being the story of a single particular character. It’s all told in collective first person voice and although there are moments and scenes of particular women it’s a collective story.

Beginning with their sea voyage to San Francisco the women who came as “picture brides” begin to share their histories of why they’re doing this and their speculations about their future husbands based on the letters and photos they have. When they arrive they learn that the pictures and letters have in many cases not provided an accurate prediction of what their lives will be like.

Their struggles to create lives with and sometimes in spite of their husbands and the societal prejudices show their strength. As farmers, domestic workers, shop owners, or whatever they need to do they make their way. Most of them stay in California. They try to retain their Japanese culture even as their children become more American than Japanese. After Pearl Harbor everything changes for the Japanese Americans in the Western US. The order for them to be evacuated and detained in internment camps is a sad piece of our history that makes this book quite haunting.

My Thoughts:
Growing up on the west coast I’ve heard all my life about the evacuation and internment of the Japanese Americans. I’ve read a few books and stories over the years so this one caught my attention when Meghan mentioned it. I’m so glad she did because I thought this was a beautifully written book that despite its short length tells many stories in a powerful way.

The collective first person voice is unusual and took some getting used to but I loved the way it allowed the story to not be limited to a handful of characters. It also creates a lyrical story told as through a chorus. I loved the way that she managed to touch on so many different emotions in such a short book. There was sadness, laughter, love, pain, anxiety and so much more. The writing was beautiful and I could easily have marked passages on nearly every page that I wanted to pause and absorb again.

Here are a few I found by just randomly flipping through the book:

On the boat we sometimes lay awake for hours in the swaying damp darkness of the hold, filled with longing and dread, and wondered how we would last another three weeks.

They admired us for our strong backs and nimble hands. Our stamina. Our discipline. Our docile dispositions. Our unusual ability to tolerate the heat, which on summer days in the melon fields of Brawley could reach 120 degrees.

We gave birth in Rialto by the light of a kerosene lantern on top of an old silk quilt we had brought over with us in our trunk from Japan. It still had my mother’s smell.

Soon we could barely recognize them. They were taller than we were and heavier. They were loud beyond belief. I feel like a duck that’s hatched goose’s eggs. They preferred their own company to ours and pretended not to understand a word that we said.

In the newspapers, and on the radio we began to hear talk of mass removals.

I highly recommend this book. It didn’t take me long to read but it will stick with me for a long time.

5 Rating 5/5

While not the same kind of mail order marriage as portrayed in this book here is a link to a story about a family from Oregon and how the internment changed their lives. Their daughter was not allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies from the University of Oregon but finally received her diploma in 1986. The Yasui Legacy