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The Japanese men advise their “picture brides,” newly arrived by boat to California: “Be humble. Be polite. Appear eager to please. Say ‘Yes, sir,’ or ‘No,  sir,’ and do as you’re told. Better yet, say nothing at all. You now belong to the invisible world.”

But this invisible world is teeming with stories, and in a beautiful prose poem of a novel, The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka gives haunting voice to the women’s tales of coming to America in the years before World War II. She does this by employing the first-person plural to singular effect:

“Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years. . .Some of us came from the mountains and had never before seen the sea, except in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives.”

They carry with them the pictures of their husbands, wondering if they will recognize them when they step off the dock. They hope for a  life away from the rice paddies.  They are seasick. They miss their mothers. “At night we dreamed of our husbands. We dreamed of new wooden  sandals and endless bolts of indigo silk and of living, one day, in a house with a chimney. We dreamed we were lovely and tall.”

What happens to those dreams becomes the stuff of a series of short, themed chapters. After the boat are the surprises and tears of “First Night,” followed by the strangeness of “Whites,” as the women become fruit pickers, sharecroppers, laundresses, house maids, or prostitutes. In “Babies,” they give birth in dusty vineyards, on  a remote farm, in an apple orchard, a tent, by kerosene light on a comforter brought from Japan in a trunk. “It still had my mother’s smell.”  Some babies die and are buried beside a stream; “but have moved so many times since we can no longer remember where she is.” 

“The Children” grow up, taller, stronger, speaking English, resentful, even ashamed, of their mothers, who are still proud, who try to  teach them manners, which chopstick to use. “Never take the last piece of food on a plate.” 

These offspring have their own plans and dreams. “One wanted to become a doctor. One wanted to become his sister. One wanted to become a star. And even though we saw the darkness coming we said nothing and let them dream on.”

That darkness, of course, is World War II and internment, and it is what the book has been building toward in its incancatory, spellbinding sentences. There are rumors of of a list. Some husbands disappear in the night. Comfort is taken in the routines of a hot bowl of rice, a weed dug, a child put safely to bed. “Soon we were hearing stories of entire communities being taken away.” And then it is “Last Day.”

But this is not book’s end. In “A Disappearance,” the narrative voice switches to the community who notices the Japanese are gone, shops closed, windows boarded up, stray dogs everywhere who need new homes.  “With each passing day, the notices on the telephone poles go increasingly faint.”  They don’t know where they have gone, and a year on, and almost all traces of the Japanese have vanished.

Thanks to Oksuta, though, the Japanese picture brides will never be invisible again.

Open Book: I read a digital galley of  The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Oksuta (Knopf) that was made available through NetGalley. Then I ordered a copy as a gift for my cousin who used to live in Japan. And I read it one more time, non-stop, beginning to end.

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