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The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

2011, Knopf

The Buddha in the Attic opens in the early 1900's. A boat full of young Japanese "picture brides" are on their way to the United States to meet their new husbands, earlier immigrants from Japan. Looking for wives, the husbands-to-be attracted them through advertisements describing well-paid jobs and comfortable abodes. The brides arrived with high expectations, but instead of wealthy men and pretty houses, they found poor laborers living in demeaning conditions, often with no home at all.

The book reveals the plight of these immigrants as they sought to assimilate their families into a new culture in spite of economic hardship and the fierce racism which ultimately led to forced internment in camps during WWII. Many lost everything they had worked so hard for and had to start over again after the war.
Japanese Picture Brides

Otsuka tells the story in a voice which sings poetically while remaining true to the well-researched historical facts. The narrative voice is in the first person plural, and follows a repetitive structure which I found enchanting and a pleasure to read at the beginning.

On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city...Some of us came from the mountains...some of us were the daughters of fishermen...Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on. (3)

Although I occasionally tired of this repetitive style later in the book, I read with interest until the end and was inspired to do more research, especially about the internment camps during WWII.

Here you can read more about the camps. For a change, I've included a site meant for kids, a good way to get information on a subject when you don't have much time, (also useful if you have younger children in your life).

I recommend The Buddha in the Attic. (Also to note: it's a quick read.)

Also by Julie Otsuka: When the Emperor Was Divine

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Mar 18, 2021

Stephane lent me this book, which I enjoyed, and then I ended up buying When the Emperor Was Divine which I liked less (because I've read a lot of books about the internment, and it seemed like familiar territory). The part I liked most was the return to "normal" life after the camps, because I hadn't read any accounts of that before.

I agree about the repetitive style of Buddha, but that could be because it kept switching POVs and seemed a bit short-storyish.

Did you ever learn about the internment camps in school? I never had (Cold War textbooks, so no negative accounts of the US allowed😡), but I do believe it's now taught.

Mar 18, 2021
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No indeed I did not. There is so much interesting history ignored, it's too bad because it can only make us better to know about it.

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