The Buddha In the Attic by Julie Otsuka. I’ve been putting off this review for a while now. I’m not really sure where to begin. I loved it, but… It sort of worked for the challenge, but… The 1st person plural voice was an interesting technique, but… It’s a difficult book for me to write about.

I’m reading my way across the USA–3-5 books from each state, with an emphasis on books where the setting becomes another character in the book, or where we learn something about the people, the history, and/or the geography of the state.

Right now, we are finishing up California with The Buddha In the Attic by Julie Otsuka.

It was beautifully written, with lovely passages like this one from when the brides were on the ship coming to America:

Sometimes a flying fish would land at our feet, flopping and out of breath, and one of us—usually it was one of the fishermen’s daughters—would pick it up and toss it back into the water. Or a school of dolphins would appear out of nowhere and leap alongside the boat for hours. One calm, windless morning when the sea was flat as glass and the sky a brilliant shade of blue, the smooth black flank of a whale suddenly rose up out of the water and then disappeared and for a moment we forgot to breathe. It was like looking into the eye of the Buddha.

The distinguishing characteristic of this book is the first person plural voice:

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. On the Holland Tract we sorted their green beans.

That universal “we” of these women whose story is being told–the Japanese mail-order brides who came to California in the early 1900s–is a compelling link to the reader, making us feel a connection to them–making us feel like one of them. At times, however, their stories are so different that the “we” becomes jarring, because they really were individuals, and this book, however beautiful it is, denies them that individuality. (And, yes, I realize that it is very American to value that individuality.)

Where I felt the first person plural worked the best was in the times when their collective experiences were very similar, for instance in the chapters leading up to the Japanese American internment during World War II.

For several days we stayed inside with our shades drawn and listened to the news of the war on the radio. We removed our names from our mailboxes. We brought in our shoes from the front porch. We did not send our children to school. At night we bolted our doors and spoke among ourselves in whispers. We closed our windows tight.

At one point Otsuka writes, “And we wondered why we had insisted for so long on clinging to our strange, foreign ways. We’ve made them hate us,” which reminded me very much of The Meaning of Names and the German Americans in Nebraska during World War I. I was again struck by the thought that we tend to think of the great American melting pot as a benign, even good, thing, but I keep being confronted by evidence that it has often been brought on by fear–on both sides.

Several times during the chapters about the internment, Otsuka mentions men being taken from their homes in the middle of the night. That’s something we associate with corrupt regimes in other parts of the world–the Soviets or the Nazis–not the United States, and certainly not FDR. And, as I was reading the Wikipedia page on Japanese American internment during WWII, I read several times that scholars of this period in history urge us to use the words “concentration camps” rather than “internment camps” and refer to those kept there as “incarcerated.” It’s a reminder that using euphemisms for a thing can have unhealthy results, and sometimes we have to name a thing for what it is in order to come to terms with it.

Way back when we started this journey in Alaska, we learned that some of the Aleuts were removed from several of the islands after the Japanese invaded. Although their relocation was actually somewhat justified, their treatment was not, and in Aleutian Sparrow, they compared their treatment–rather unfavorably–to that of German POWs.

I’m interested now in reading Otsuka’s first book, When the Emperor Was Divine, which covers the experiences of a family in one of the camps, and which is apparently taught in high schools and colleges across the country. Not that I haven’t read other stories about the camps, but Otsuka’s writing is powerful and compelling.

The glimpses we get of these women before the war are fascinating tidbits, many of which made me long to know more.

And every year, in August, on the Feast of the Dead, we lit white paper lanterns on their gravestones and welcomed their spirits back to earth for a day. And at the end of that day, when it was time for them to leave, we set the paper lanterns afloat on the river to guide them safely home. For they were Buddhas now, who resided in the Land of Bliss.

There was racism too, even before the war. I wasn’t really aware that before World War II, Japanese immigrants filled the agricultural roles that are now often filled by Hispanic immigrants.

We had all the virtues of the Chinese—we were hardworking, we were patient, we were unfailingly polite—but none of their vices—we didn’t gamble or smoke opium, we didn’t brawl, we never spat. We were faster than the Filipinos and less arrogant than the Hindus. We were more disciplined than the Koreans. We were soberer than the Mexicans. We were cheaper to feed than the Okies and Arkies, both the light and the dark. A Japanese can live on a teaspoonful of rice a day. We were the best breed of worker they had ever hired in their lives. These folks just drift, we don’t have to look after them at all.

That last sentiment is perhaps the most telling.

In the chapter Last Day, Otsuka continues her use of the first person plural as she illustrates how the Japanese were herded away to the camps.

Some of us left weeping. And some of us left singing. … A few of us left drunk. Others of us left quietly, with our heads bowed, embarrassed and ashamed.

But then she begins to give us some of the personal details she has held back.

There was a newborn baby from San Leandro who left sleepily, with her eyes half closed, in a swaying wicker basket. Her mother–Shizuma’s eldest daughter, Naomi–left anxiously but stylishly in a gray wool skirt and black alligator pumps. “Do you think they’ll have milk there?” she kept asking. There was a boy in short pants from Oxnard who left wondering whether or not they’d have swings.

Even so, we don’t really get to know these people as individuals–this is their only moment in the spotlight. And this section continues, back and forth between “some of us” or “most of us” and “there was one who…” for pages and pages. It is poignant, and heartbreaking for the most part, but odd in its impersonal nature. (As a side note, one of the “there was one who…” is a “chicken sexer from Petaluma,” which takes us back to Indiana and Bento Box in the Heartland.)

But perhaps where the first person plural technique works the best is in the chapter A Disappearance, where the “we” becomes the people left behind after the Japanese are taken.

The Japanese have disappeared from our town. Their houses are boarded up and empty now. … Harada Grocery is closed, and in its front window hangs a handwritten sign none of us can remember having seen there before–God be with you until we meet again, it reads. And of course, we cannot help but wonder: Who put up the sign? Was it one of them? Or one of us? And if it was one of us, which one of us was it? We ask ourselves this as we press our foreheads to the glass and squint into the darkness, half expecting Mr. Harada himself to come barreling out from behind the counter in his faded green apron, urging upon us a stalk of asparagus, a perfect strawberry, a sprig of fresh mint, but there is nothing there to be seen. The shelves are empty. The floors, neatly swept. The Japanese are gone.

Over the course of the rest of this last chapter, we see the Americans left behind go complacently from concerned to suspicious to inconvenienced and back to their own lives and cares.

We speak of them rarely now, if at all, although word from the other side of the mountains continues to reach us from time to time … But this is only hearsay, and none of it necessarily true. All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.

Overall, I think The Buddha In the Attic by Julie Otsuka was an important book to add to my reading challenge list for California. It was a less traditional style than most of the books we’ve read–both in terms of the first person plural, and the resulting non-linear story. But it’s an important part of California–both its people and its history–in much the same way that Island of the Blue Dolphins gave us the opportunity to discuss the Native peoples of California and the vanishing Indian trope. I’m going to be thinking about both of these narratives for a long time to come.


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