When my sister sent me a copy of Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka for Christmas I knew it was time to read this book that had been on my list because she had been excited about it, because it had good reviews, and because it has an intriguing title. I was not disappointed.
The story is narrated in the first person in a number of voices, mostly by taking rapid turns in sentences, of the seldom told stories of Japanese mail-order brides in the early twentieth century. These women, known as a "picture brides," came from their homes in Japan to San Francisco because of ads promising them a husband, a home, and exciting opportunities in a new land.
Beginning with the images of their miserable voyage by ship in steerage quarters, the first calls of the woman reveal that they were not alike in background. They were from different islands, had varied reasons for wanting to come to America, and of varied appearance and personality. The one thing that they had in common was that they were Japanese woman full of wonder and hope or worry and sadness when comparing pictures of the men who would meet them and their new homes in an unknown land. And of course so many became not only dreadfully ill or sea sick but sick at heart at leaving home.
After this harsh reality their experiences vary in the rush of voices that the story presents in each chapter. Often the pictures that they they had of the men or homes were false. A few fared well but there were mostly unhappy or tragic images woven among them. From their reception in San Francisco they were scattered to a number of locations in California or other states in the west. Mostly they were wanted for exhausting work and abuse of every sort was common. One common theme seemed to be that these woman were often valued as workers because so often they could patiently and competently outwork others and didn't need much food.
And then came the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the beginning of the Second World War, and the sad relocation of so many Japanese Americans when those who had finally built their own farms or businesses so often lost everything. What moved me so often in this rapid-fire chorus of voices is the theme of dignity and perseverance of this group. Otsuka's previous and equally acclaimed novel When the Emperor Was Divine focuses on the the path to internment of Japanese Americans during the war, a story still too seldom told. Another companion for learning about this period of history would be Jeanne Wakatsuki Houtson's classic Farewell to Manzanar.
Among many awards this novel was a National Book Award Finalist, winner of the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction, a New York Times Notable book, and listed as a Best Book of the Year by the Boston Globe.