Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic

Otsuka, Julie

2011, Vintage

Bought off the “local interest” shelf at City Lights during a brief stop in San Francisco, and read against the context of having visited Manzanar and the OK hotel in Seattle, this is a short yet powerful book, much along the lines of Address Unknown but with more of an origin.

Starting “on the boat” we are immersed into the society of Japanese mail order brides on their way across the Pacific to San Francisco and new lives with the husbands they only know from a photograph and a letter.  There is no “I” in the base story; it’s told from the collective, commoditized viewpoint of “we” unless in a direct quotation / thought of an individual. To summarize:

Then we land and meet our new futures, learning for the most part that both the picture and the letter were probably not accurate.  From dreams of a better life away from the rural village in Japan we find ourselves toiling 18 hours a day as field hands effectively hired out by our husbands to work beside them, or to work the noodle shop, or the laundry. Maybe we get hired on as maids while our husbands work as gardeners.  Or maybe, just maybe, we get a patch of awkward land out in the middle of nowhere and try to scrape together a living as sharecroppers.

We settle, we grow. Children come, and community. We mainly keep to ourselves, our customs, at least inside the home, but our children pull us out toward integration.  We may have only learned a few sentences of English, they know only a few of Japanese.  We finally allow ourselves to dream again, not for ourselves so much as for the children.

And then the war comes, and we are made to understand that we are targets.  People disappear. And then suddenly comes the order to leave all behind.  And only then do a few concerned acquaintances, customers, or employers start to wonder where we have gone to and what might possibly have become of us.


The imagery, language, and tone of this book is incredibly well utilized and provides an engaging means of pulling into a very complicated and painful topic, and it does so incredibly well.

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