The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

  “On the boat we carried with us in our trunks all the things we would need for our new lives: white silk kimonos for our wedding night, colorful cotton kimonos for everyday wear, plain cotton kimonos for when we grew old, calligraphy brushes, thick black sticks of ink, thin sheets of rice paper on which to write long letters home, tiny brass Buddhas, ivory statues of the fox god, dolls we had slept with since we were five, bags of brown sugar with which to buy favors, bright cloth quilts, paper fans, English phrase books, flowered silk sashes, smooth black stones from the river that ran behind our house, a lock of hair from a boy we had once touched, and loved, and promised to write, even though we knew we never would, silver mirrors given to us by our mothers, whose last words still rang in our ears. You will see: women are weak, but mothers are strong.”

The Buddha in the Attic is a spellbinding emotional journey through the lives of mail order brides brought from Japan to San Francisco in the 1900s. In Otsuka’s poetic prose, it tells their story from the collective viewpoint of ‘We.’  The Buddha in the Attic explores how it felt to be a woman, a wife, a mother and of course, a Japanese American during those historic years.

We follow their lives from the beginning on the boat sailing to America, to their final experiences after Pearl Harbor. We are entranced by their memories of rice fields at sunrise, their disappointing meeting of their new husbands, their acceptance of the lies they were told to get them to America and their ensuing lives ever since.

“This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.

Their new American lives range from terrifying to comfortable. They are put to work as cheap farm labor, they are raped, they are loved, they are cherished, they are beaten, they are poor, they are happy and they are terribly miserable. They raise their children in fields, in laundromats, in restaurants and in big houses where they work as maids. Their children stop speaking Japanese, know perfect English, disregard traditions and are sent back to Japan for a better life. Then the war begins and their lives change once again, forever. Their stories are entrancing and heartbreaking.

On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee.

Though the very last installment is from the viewpoint of the White Americans and doesn’t quite live up to the entire book thus far, Otsuka’s writing is a pleasure to read. Her many threads flow together seamlessly without losing sight of each joy or tragedy. She is able to effortlessly capture us with glimpses into each individual’s life and the collective experience in the same sentence.

We stay with each woman until the last moments of her story, and cannot help but wish for more after we turn the last page.

She left laughing. She left without looking back.

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