I’ve been interested in learning more about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II for a while now. After reading The Japanese Lover earlier this year, my interest was piqued, and then I heard about The Buddha in the Attic (2011) by Julie Otsuka,
Julie Otsuka tells the stories of Japanese picture brides immigrating to America in the early 1900’s. What makes this book unique but also challenging is that she writes in first person plural. The viewpoint is from an unknown number of various Japanese girls and women. Some are named and some of those names are repeated but there is no through story line or any one main character.
The book starts with the women on their cramped ships on their way across the ocean, and beginning their new lives in a strange, new land. “Because if our husbands had told us the truth in their letters–they were not silk traders, they were fruit pickers, they did not live in large, many-roomed houses, they lived in tents and in barns and out of doors, in the fields, beneath the sun and the stars–we never would have come to America to do the work that no self-respecting American would do.” (28)
The story continues as they settle into their new country, working as maids and gardeners, harvesting crops, farming, and creating small businesses. The women have children and deal with the attitudes of their second-generation-immigrant children. The story continues until after the outbreak of WWII, when the suspicion and fear tear from them everything they’ve worked so hard to achieve.
“The rumors began to reach us on the second day of the war. There was talk of a list. Some people being taken away in the middle of the night. A banker who went to work and never came home. A barber who disappeared during his lunch break.” (81)
Overall, I am very impressed with this book. Otsuka packs a lot into a relatively short novel, and I love that the perspective is from a historically very underrepresented group: both women and Japanese immigrants. It’s a look at history that is not in American high school history books. This is a book that has stuck with me and continues to make me think.
I do have mixed feelings about Otsuka writing in first person plural. I realize that it allowed Otsuka to tell a much wider range of experiences than she would have been able to if she had focused on only a couple of main characters. I did appreciate this wider range of perspectives–especially on a topic that I knew so little of. The experiences of these women were so varied that many experiences would have been lost if she’d only told one story. I was also impressed by Otsuka’s ability to write in this style. However, at its worst, I felt like I was reading a series of lists, and it did make the story drag a little in the middle. In addition, there is an emotional connection to the characters that is lost when you are reading about a series of strangers that you never really get to know. I liked this book and I’m glad I read it, but I’m also interested in reading a more personal story about this topic.
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