The Buddha in the Attic

Written by Julie Otsuka
Review by Trudi E. Jacobson

This slim, elegant novel is written from an unusual group perspective. We follow the thoughts and life events of the Japanese women who came to the west coast of the United States as mail order brides in the early 20th century. While we learn some names, we don’t learn enough to determine which husband goes with which wife, which child with which parents.

However, that is not the point. Instead, we get a wash of experiences, from which we can determine the similarities and differences in their experiences: the new husbands who are brutes and those who are gentler; the unending labor of those who work in the fields and orchards, picking tomatoes, picking apples, picking pears, and those who work as maids or cooks or dishwashers; the babies who are born and thrive, and those that don’t; the children who assimilate (there is no counterbalance for this); the distress that comes with interacting with whites and the far fewer positive experiences; eventually the possibilities for owning their own businesses with their husbands; and lastly, the terror of the forced relocation to the internment camps and the loss of everything they had built up in their lives.

Universally, their existence is nothing like what they dreamed of when they were on their way to the United States. Most are indomitable in the face of hardship after hardship. The stories of these women, crystallized to essentials and yet haunting in the little details, had an impact far beyond what one might expect from such a slender volume.