The Buddha in the Attic might as easily be named The Book of Lists. Julie Otsuka inscribes a library of research into a slim volume that is almost poetic in its evocative spareness. She tells the story of the Japanese “picture brides” who traveled by ship to the West coast at the turn of the last century to marry men who had sent handsome photographs and eloquent letters–not written by them and not depicting them. Reality was harsh. The sea voyage was hard to endure; their husbands were field workers, twenty years older than the photos, someone else entirely, house servants, not bankers. Their new homes were sacks in sheds at the edges of farms where they picked in the fields all day. Or bare bones servants’ lodgings at the back of the house or in one of the out buildings. Their wedding nights were closer to rape than romance; their lives were exhausting, unending labor. They washed and ironed in laundries, cooked and served in restaurants, escaped from brutal husbands to find work in the bawdy houses in California’s cities, filled the sleeves of their wedding kimonos with stones and waded into the Pacific.
The whole immigrant experience is encapsulated in words that make a slide show of images and impressions. Children are born, live or not, acculturate, lose the customs and the language, turn away from their families to become Americans. And then World War II comes, and Pearl Harbor, and the infamous reception centers are set up and the neat, hard-won homes, the established restaurants, the quiet, orderly presence of the Japanese is suddenly erased. The outrage in this book is palpable. In saying very little, it says everything. Line-by-line, layer-by-layer, Julie Otsuka builds a world of hope, despair, persistence, achievement and overnight devastation. When I first learned about the Japanese concentration camps in this country, many years after my “American history” courses in school, I was appalled. But it seemed so distant, so unimaginably backward, an aberration I couldn’t really comprehend. The Buddha in the Attic makes the whole ragged struggle of being an immigrant visceral, the deportation of an entire ethnic group to internment camps vivid and unforgivable.
It won’t take too many hours to read this small book but the high-definition cinema of its story will stay in your head for a long time.
The Buddha in the Attic Julie Otsuka | Alfred A. Knopf 2011