The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka


I read this based on Reading Matters' recommendation.  I turned up without something to read for the trip back from Iowa and found this at the Minneapolis Airport bookstore.

Given my reservations about reading fiction that does not have developed characters and paints a largely grim picture, I had low expectations, but The Buddha in the Attic exceeded them handsomely.  Julie Otsuka describes the importation of Japanese women to the US to be wives of men they did not know early in the 20th century.  The women had received pictures of young successful men accompanied by appealing letters that convinced them they would have a wonderful life in the US.  It turned out the photos were old and letters were written by a professional.  The men who greeted them were farm laborers or fishermen, worked in laundries or as gardeners for the wealthy.

We wandered from one labor camp to the next in their hot dusty valleys–the Sacramento, the Imperial, the San Joaquin–and side by side with our new husbands, we worked their land.  We picked their strawberries in Watsonville.  We picked their grapes in Fresno and Denair.  We got down on our knees and dug up their potatoes with garden forks on Bacon Island in the Delta, where the earth was spongy and soft.

As the years go by, some work for the unnamed "they," in their big houses, some become sharecroppers, some have children, some work in Japantown where they only saw other Japanese, never seeing "them."  Then came the war and the men began to disappear.  Sometimes they returned after several days, sometimes not.  The rumors were so terrifying that when they learned they would all leave to live in a camp, they were relieved. 

The Kobayashis of Biola left after bleaching the top of their stove and washing the floors of their restaurant with buckets of scalding hot water.  The Suzukis of Lompoc left little piles of salt outside their doorway to purify their house.  The Nishimotos of San Carlos left out bowls of fresh orchids from their nursery on their kitchen table for whoever was moving in next.  The Igarashis of Preston packed up until the last moment and left their place a mess.  Most of us left in a hurry.  Many of us left in despair.  A few of us left in disgust, and had no desire to ever come back.

Otsuka ends with a chapter from the perspective of "them," most of whom did not know where the Japanese were to be taken.  The children especially were confused and distressed by their disappearance. 

People began to demand answers.  Did the Japanese go to the reception centers voluntarily, or under duress?  What is their ultimate destination?  Why were we not informed of their departure in advance.  Who, if anyone, will intervene on their behalf?  Are they innocent?  Are they guilty?

Otsuka has brought to life this period in our history using disparate facts about many individuals.  She weaves these dry facts into a narrative that is at once grim and heartening.  This most unusual form of storytelling is surprisingly effective, truly beautiful at times.

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