The Buddha in the Attic

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Alfred A. Knopf, 2011 - Fiction - 129 pages
4 Reviews
Finalist for the 2011 National Book Award

Julie Otsuka’s long awaited follow-up toWhen the Emperor Was Divine(“To watchEmperorcatching on with teachers and students in vast numbers is to grasp what must have happened at the outset for novels likeLord of the FliesandTo Kill a Mockingbird” —The New York Times) is a tour de force of economy and precision, a novel that tells the story of a group of young women brought over from Japan to San Francisco as ‘picture brides’ nearly a century ago.

In eight incantatory sections,The Buddha in the Attictraces their 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. 

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The third person voice was annoying in the beginning, but you kind of get used to it after a while. Some chapters were written entirely using the same sentence structure and it really bothered me. (e.g. "We gave birth {insert how/ where they gave birth}. times a 4 page chapter). I ended up skipping a couple of pages just because i got bored of reading the same sentence structure. 

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Although it was sometimes hard to read, because the information kept coming at me in short, almost rhythmic bursts of thought, attacking my brain with bullets of information, it was actually an amazing read because after 129 pages, I not only felt that I knew about the history of the Japanese women who were lured here by Japanese men who deceived them, but I also knew how they were treated on board the boats that brought them here, how they survived the journey, how they were treated in America by other Japanese, by other immigrants and by Americans. In short, in so few pages, the author has done a monumental job of informing the reader about a scar in our past that cannot be erased.
The short sentences spoke volumes. We feel the power of the storyteller’s words; we occupy her thoughts. We understand the plight of the mail-order brides, experience what they must endure and will continue to endure for the rest of their lives
Beautifully written, lyrical at times, with some rare moments of subtle wit, the mostly sad revelations come to life in short, simple sentences that are easy to grasp, and yet are filled with deep emotion in their construct.
Sometimes the seemingly random thoughts felt almost rambling, but they coalesced and presented an amazing final picture of what it was like for these women, now sentenced to life in America far different from what they had hoped and expected. The sentences, which at first seemed to be mundane lists of occurrences, running together rapidly, suddenly, seemed effortlessly to explode with passion.
I learned how the Japanese lived, what they dreamed, where they originally came from, what they hoped for, how old they were, how pure, how abused, how they bore their grief, their hardships, their children, their small joys, their working days, their exhaustion, and their poverty.
I watched them bear it all quietly, with dignity. They suffered in silence. They raised their children strictly, in the ways of the old world, and yet, the children became more Americanized than Japanese; they became ashamed of their parents and their impoverished circumstances, unable to escape the financial failures of their lives.
Then came the war and it was as if all they had fought to achieve was for naught, in the end; all the hard work, all their achievements were wiped out, the slate was clean, all the struggles were futile. Their decisions to be purchased as brides, to obtain a better life, had the severest of consequences. The Japanese simply came and went, and life went on as if they never were, they were not remembered.
In so few pages, this amazing novel, tells it all. As it presents a sharp snapshot of their efforts and their history, we come to understand how nobly they suffered, how they couldn’t return home without shaming their families with their failure in America, how they wrote letters home filled with a life of fantasy. Although there were some traitors among their race in America, at the time of World War II, most were not our enemies. They thought of themselves as Americans, and they were stoic, they believed they would be proven innocent, no danger to the country, and that they would one day return to their homes but America did not believe in them. Their homes were looted, their businesses taken over by others, and they were deceived and abandoned by their friends once again, as they had been when they first came with the false promises made by their husbands and by the agencies that sent them false pictures and false hopes about a land filled with opportunity for them, simply in exchange for their passage and a promise to be a wife. They became, instead, a servant, perhaps even a slave.
The final message may be that friends can become enemies, in a flash, and sympathizing with friends, who are now considered enemies, can make the sympathizer the enemy too. Fear is a dangerous and powerful weapon. It worked and soon, all memory and traces of the Japanese in J-town were gone.
This brief book is a tale about dreams and nightmares, love and hate, acceptance and

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Section 1
Section 2
Section 3
Section 4
Section 5
Section 6
Section 7
Section 8
Section 9
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About the author (2011)

Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. She is the author of the novel, When the Emperor was Divine, and a recipient of the Asian American Literary Award, the American Library Association Alex Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship. She lives in New York City.

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