Julie Otsuka is my new favorite author. She’s got style and substance. Several weeks ago I finished her new novel, The Buddha in the Attic (Knopf, 2011), which was recently listed as a National Book Award finalist.
In Buddha, she doesn’t use a main character and doesn’t write dialogue. It’s a short novel and a quick read, but packed with a tear-jerking story of Japanese women who sailed to the US in the early 20th century thinking they were engaged to marry men who lived in stately mansions with white picket fences. Instead, these women joined their new husbands in the fields picking fruit or as domestic helpers of folks who really did live in mansions.
Buddha takes the reader through WWII and the Japanese internment camps. And that’s the period in which When the Emperor Was Divine (Anchor, 2003) takes place. I read Emperor last week.
In this novel, Otsuka doesn’t name her main characters. They’re simply called the girl, the boy, mother, and father. She includes minimal dialogue and sometimes changes her narrators. Emperor is also a short novel, but as with Buddha, the reader is left with a heavy, heart-wrenching story.
As a child in suburban Chicago, one of my favorite books growing up was Farewell to Manzanar (Bantam, 1983) by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. It told the true story of a Japanese-American girl who was sent to an internment camp. Almost 30 years later, I can still picture the stall-less bathrooms and pineapple served atop white rice. I’m excited for my 13 year old son to read it in his English class this year!
Like Farewell, Otsuka’s novels are a chilling reminder of one of the darkest periods of American history.