Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka ****

I've never heard the radio play by Dylan Thomas called Under Milkwood performed, though I always wanted to after I read it.  I got interested in Thomas when I read some of his short stories back when I was in college.  Sometimes they annoyed me & I couldn't finish them, but other times they were so right that they are singed into my memory.  One short story in particular I will remember forever, but I haven't been able to find it again.  I don't know where I read it but it's one of those quests that will define my life--where is that story?
The Buddha in the Attic reminds me of Under Milkwood because of the way it is written.  You get to hear the inner voices of a group of people, a community, what they're thinking & how they're living.  Thomas wrote of a Welsh fishing village, but Otsuka writes of the community of Japanese picture brides that came to the US after the turn of the century.  I know it sounds very different, but for some reason it was rather similar to me.
I can't imagine how brave & scared those women had to be, coming to a totally foreign land to marry men they'd never met, men that they only had pictures of & letters full of promises.  When they got to our shores many found that not only were their new husbands not the men in the pictures, but they were desperately poor.  These women who hoped for a better life across the ocean found themselves in just as much hardship as what they'd left.  And through this book their voices speak again, about the women that started laundry businesses with their husbands, or started farming rented land.  Or worked as maids for the rich ladies of San Francisco, or became prostitutes.  You hear them talk of how they learned to love their husbands, or never stopped hating them.  Of how they were worked almost to death, & had to claw their way up the ladder of success.  You hear them mourn the loss of children & grow weary at the birth of yet another. 
You get to become part of their community for a short while, just as you became part of the fabric of Milkwood for a short while too.  But unlike Dylan Thomas' fictional village, the story of the women of Japan who came to America is real.  And it comes to a screeching halt when their homes, stores, businesses & farms are suddenly empty & abandoned.  It ends in 1942. 
A very good book.  It left me haunted by voices.

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