Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic
Updated: Jul 16, 2019
“We never talked back or complained. We never asked for a raise. For most of us were simple girls from the country who did not speak any English and in America, we knew we had no choice but to scrub sinks and wash floors.” -Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic is the story of a group of Japanese girls in the early 1900s who traveled by boat to America as “picture brides”. During this time, marriages were arranged by poor Japanese families who gave away their daughters to Japanese-American men residing in the States. The agreement was sealed with a payment and a photograph symbolizing the promise of their soon-to-be husband. The novel follows the common experiences of Japanese women during this time through each major stage of their lives--harsh workloads, prejudice, motherhood, and horrifying discrimination during World War II.
Otsuka’s storytelling is unique in the way that she presents the lives of these women. She uses language such as “we”, “our”, “us”, etc. to describe their experiences creating a sense of unification and commonality among them. However, this language is juxtaposed with the diverse realities of what these individual women faced at the time, revealing how different each woman’s experience could be from the other. I appreciate how Otsuka carefully constructed and portrayed this time in American history, which is not well-known to many. In only one-hundred and thirty pages, she is able to paint an elaborate picture of the time.
One of the goals of Prose for Peace is to give a voice to those who are marginalized. Katie and I recommend The Buddha in the Attic because this short novel accomplishes that goal by sharing the stories of important figures who make up a portion of American society and who are briefly mentioned (if at all) in World War II history. Otsuka sheds light on some cruel moments that occurred in America’s past, and this exposure allows us to acknowledge these mistakes and address our own prejudices.