Friday, June 21, 2013

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka’s long-awaited follow-up to When the Emperor Was Divine is a tour de force of economy and precision, a novel that tells the story of a group of young women brought from Japan to San Francisco as “picture brides” nearly a century ago.
 
In eight incantatory sections, The Buddha in the Attic traces the picture brides’ extraordinary lives, from their arduous journey by boat, where they exchange photographs of their husbands, imagining uncertain futures in an unknown land; to their arrival in San Francisco and their tremulous first nights as new wives; to their backbreaking work picking fruit in the fields and scrubbing the floors of white women; to their struggles to master a new language and a new culture; to their experiences in childbirth, and then as mothers, raising children who will ultimately reject their heritage and their history; to the deracinating arrival of war. 
 
In language that has the force and the fury of poetry, Julie Otsuka has written a singularly spellbinding novel about the American dream.
The Buddha in the Attic was a library book club book selection and it was a love it or hate it book.  Me, I loved it!
 The start of the book reminded me of the children's song "There are no cats in America."  I think I made this connection because of how "off" the Picture Bride's perception of America and what they were coming to was. 

On page 10 of the book the Mother's advice to the Picture Bride's is "You will see: women are week, but mothers are strong."  I could not agree and disagree more!  Shortly after this quote the book reveals that some of the women are leaving behind daughters because there is no chance of marriage.  
This book is about a group, not an individual and Julie writes it gorgeously by choosing to write in a "we" format.  What I mean by this is that there is a universal voice of all these picture brides.  I found this stunningly done, very poetic and done in a fashion that was not confusing.  The interesting thing about this voice is all the contradictions.  A good example of this would be when the Picture Brides meet their husbands for the first time.  Many of them were tricked and they say this but further in the paragraph there would be those women who were not deceived.  This opposite/different experience occurs frequently throughout the book. 
After the attack on Pearl Harbor the voice switches we's.  Now it is the American's are speaking.  The switch is very interesting because now the reader no longer gets the full effect of what is happening to the Picture Brides and their families, instead we get how the other town members view them. 
One of the most powerful lines in the book is in this section.  "We wonder if it wasn't somehow all our fault.  Perhaps we should have petitioned the major.  The Governor.  The president himself.  Please let them stay.  Or simply knocked on their doors and offered to help.  If only, we say to ourselves, we'd known."
Overall this was an intriguing read written in a gorgeous sing song manner that I would encourage everyone to try.  It is short too!
 
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3 comments:

Janet Ghio said...

Both of these books sound good. thanks for the recommendation!

Ricki Jill Treleaven said...

This topic fascinates me, Caroline. I want to read it! I'll try to find it at the library next week. Shelley's being tutored there Monday and Tuesday afternoon. :D

I love how you tied the book with the song. So cute! Perception is reality until faced with truth!

Thanks so much for linking-up!

xo,
RJ

Laurie said...

Wow, I will have to read this one! Thank you!