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Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic

I just finished reading Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic.

(spoiler alert!!!)

(spoiler alert!!!)

(SPOILER ALERT!!!)

This historical fiction is a collective story of Japanese mail-order brides, who were a group of women and girls sailed across the Pacific Ocean in ~1920 to marry Japanese immigrants in California whom they had only known through photos and letters. The women and girls came with very modest hopes that they would no longer have to labor hard hours in rice fields and instead, make living helping the immigrant husbands’ businesses. However, their hopes got shattered as soon as they arrived in San Francisco. The husbands were no business owners as described in the letters filled with false realities. Instead, the brides were sent immediately to California farmlands along with their new husbands to work long hard hours in strawberry fields and vineyards.

Over the next few decades, some of them remained as farm hands while others became domestic workers or small business owners. Some would become prostitutes while others would just simply become lost. Many would have children. Some children would become assimilated well whereas others would be treated badly by their peers. None of the children would seem to appreciate their parents’ ways.

The story ends with the immigrants’ forced migration to the internment camp during the World War II. The migration came after many months of uncertainties and worries. The immigrants and their children were greatly missed by their neighbors, customers, employers, and schoolmates. Meanwhile, some Californians remained skeptical about the immigrants’ allegiance. Before long, the California neighborhoods would get used to the daily lives without the Japanese American citizens.

One intriguing aspect of this book is its “first person plural” narrative. All of the women’s experiences are voiced simultaneously from the first person perspective. This allowed me (the reader) to experience all their dreams, hopes, resignations, and sorrows collectively and simultaneously.

I embrace the fact that I came to the US under much different circumstances. I got to maintain and renew my hopes and dreams without losing or downsizing them. Little sorrow was involved. However, at the same time, I cannot help but wonder whether the choices and decisions I made as a modern woman were superior to the ones made by the mail-order brides. I wonder if, just like the mail-order brides could be considered as mere pawns in the big picture of humanity, what I thought of as my own choices and decisions were actually not mine at all but inevitable decisions handed to me by the universe.

Are modern women making a greater difference to the humanity than the mail-order brides? Have the decisions made by contemporary women impacted the humanity more strongly than the decisions made by the mail-order brides? The answer is most certainly no.

Otsuka’s book keeps me honest and humble. That’s a good place to be on this Sunday evening before I take on another busy week filled with decision-making.

On a side note, I borrowed this book from my local library’s e-book rental system. I love this system. This book was fairly popular (it has been nominated for the 2011 National Book Award) and there was a waiting list of hold requests. In the old days, I would have had to drive 5 miles one way to the library, turn in my hold request, wait for the email or call from the library, and drive 5 miles again to pick it up when the book would become available. However, with the Kindle lending system, I turn in my request on line, while lounging on my couch in pajamas, and when I get the notice from the library, I retrieve and download the book while sipping a margaritas in the kitchen. No getting dressed, brushing teeth, putting on shoes or getting in a car required.

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