Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

This book is an unusual work of fiction. The main character is a group of young Japanese women traveling to join their husbands in California. These husbands are men they have seen only in twenty-year old photographs and know only through letters filled with lies, written by professional letter writers. They arrive in the United States around 1920, a time when Japanese immigrants were not welcome. The women speak as a chorus, illustrating the universality of their experience. Individuals are identified simply as “one of us,”  “a few of us,” and “others of us.”  The group is made up of many different types of women. There are women from wealthy backgrounds and women from poverty, women from the city and women from the farm. There are talented women and women with ordinary skills, faithful wives and adulteresses.  There are women who are satisfied with their lot in life and women who are never happy. The story takes us through twenty-three years of their lives (their journey, husbands, hard work, children and relationships with whites), until the pivotal year of 1942. Then, after they have been labeled “Traitors,” the author finally identifies each woman by name as they prepare to depart for the government internment camps where they will live for the duration of the war.  The Buddha in the Attic, a prequel to Julie Otsuka’s earlier book, When the Emperor Was Divine, which is about life in those camps, is a lyrically written ode to human perseverance.