The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

Otsuka's book gives us the lives of Japanese picture brides starting with their journey to the U.S. in the early 20th century. Contrary to the prosperous images promised them in letters, the men they married were mostly farmworkers, usually older and less attractive than the photographs the women had pored over before and during the journey. These women worked in the fields, as did the children they bore, and, later, as shop clerks and maids in the homes of the wealthy. We stay with them from the initial betrayal by their husbands through all the others that follow, the burden of poverty and discrimination, the small victories, up through the forced migration to the internment camps during World War II. It is a sad and moving story, filled with small details that drive home the realities they faced.

However, it was not quite as moving as I expected it to be. I felt distant from the women in the book, observing their pain but not feeling it. The reason, I believe, is that the book is written completely in the first person plural: we did this; one of us did that. While the details mount around the reader, there is no single person to follow or identify with, no central character, just the chorus. The details are all that one can ask for: specific, colorful, connected. The language is perfect, conveying their trials with dignity, without complaint. The thread of a common story emerges, but no individual faces. Perhaps if I were not already familiar with the story of these women and the suffering of hard-working Americans of Japanese descent in the internment camps, I would have been more shocked.

I loved and was fully invested in Joshua Ferris's remarkable Then We Came to the End, also written in first person plural. The difference is that, without losing his collective viewpoint, Ferris identified individuals I could care about, such as Lynn Mason, Joe Pope, and Tom Mota. Here, there is no one we stay with for more than a sentence. For example, this is how we learn about the children:

Some of them were stubborn and wilful and would not listen to a word we said. Others were more serene than the Buddha. He came into the world smiling. One loved her father more than anyone else. One hated bright colors. One would not go anywhere without his tin pail . . . They played by themselves all day long without making a sound while we worked nearby in the fields. They drew pictures in the dirt for hours. And whenever we tried to pick them up and carry them home they shook their heads and said, ‘I'm too heavy' or ‘Mama, rest.' They worried about us when we were tired. They worried about us when we were sad. They knew, without our telling them, when our knees were bothering us . . .

So, however beautifully written, I came away a little dissatisfied. I wanted individual faces to emerge from the crowd, so that I could give them the respect and attention due to each person. But that's my problem, not the book's. If I look at it as a prose poem, as some reviewers have suggested, then I have no complaint. I also see that I should look up her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, which follows a single family. For this new book, though, Otsuka has done an amazing amount of research and written an important and accomplished story. I hope many people read it and learn more about the details of these lives that threaten to disappear under the accumulation of history.

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