Bookmarks Issue: 
Julie Otsuka

A-The Buddha in the AtticJulie Otsuka, born in California, is descended from Japanese immigrants who were interned in Topaz, Utah, during World War II. The Buddha in the Attic, as well as her debut novel, When the Emperor Was Divine (2002), draw on her family's history.

The Story: "On the boat we were mostly virgins." Thus opens Otsuka's portrait of picture brides--a generation of Japanese women, some still girls, who arrived in San Francisco in the early 1900s for arranged marriages. They arrived with hopes and dreams that shattered when they discovered that the photographs of handsome husbands-to-be they had so hopefully carried with them were 20 years old, that their husbands were farmers rather than doctors, that they were expected to work as seamstresses or even prostitutes. Using the collective "we," Otsuka follows these women and their experiences over two decades, from voyage to wedding night to raising children, as they struggle to build a new, hard-won life that, once World War II arrives, will be destroyed.
Knopf. 144 pages. $22. ISBN: 9780307700001

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Buddha in the Attic is an understated masterpiece about our treatment of the ‘other,' the distillation of a national tragedy that unfolds with great emotional power. Like Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's classic 1983 memoir (with her husband James Houston) of her experience as a child in an internment camp, and Dorothea Lange's unflinching photographs of the shocking conditions at assembly centers and camps, The Buddha in the Attic seems destined to endure." Jane Ciabattari

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"In depicting the lives of Japanese picture brides who came to the United States in the early 1900s, novelist Julie Otsuka might have invented three women, alike and different, and braided their tales together. Instead, with great daring and spectacular success, she has woven countless stories gleaned from her research into a chorus of the women's voices, speaking their collective experience in a plural ‘we,' while incorporating the wide range of their individual lives." Jim Higgins

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Now [Otsuka] returns with a second novel, also employing a minimalist technique, that manages to be equally intimate yet much more expansive. ... Otsuka's novel is filled with evocative descriptive sketches (farm women with their children sleeping ‘like puppies, on wooden boards covered with hay') and hesitantly revelatory confessions ... so it's disappointing suddenly to lose that connection [in the last chapter]." Alida Becker

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Otsuka reminds us that within any story of a people, there are thousands of individual variations, just as any individual story has a connection to a people. ... The moments that lead toward internment read like a catastrophic incantation, although the book's title--reflecting one of those moments--suggests that history can't girdle a people forever." Kristin Ohlson

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"Otsuka winds a thread of despair throughout the book, haunting the reader at every chapter. For every step forward there are two steps back for these women, who did their best to build a life and a home in a country that was largely unsympathetic to their isolation." Meganne Fabrega

Critical Summary

Approximately 10,000 picture brides entered the United States in the early 20th century, and Otsuka uses bare, elegant, and evocative sketches to share their diverse stories over two decades. All critics agreed on the significance of the subject, and most felt compelled to comment on the daring first-person plural narrative Otsuka employs to explore the Japanese brides' diverse, unforgettable experiences. While the San Francisco Chronicle noted that the narrative "combines the tragic power of a Greek chorus with the intimacy of a confession," the New York Times Book Review felt that the "we" voice held the characters at a more formal, though no less emotional, distance. Although this unconventional narration may not be for everyone, The Buddha in the Attic is an important, well-told story.

Also by the Author

When the Emperor Was Divine (2002): This spare, critically acclaimed portrait of one Japanese American family's life takes readers to a Utah internment camp during World War II--from the order to evacuate their home in Berkeley, California, to the train ride to the camp, the desert encampment, the return to their home, and the release of the father from captivity in New Mexico.