The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka – Book Review

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Published by Knopf, an imprint of Random House

In the early 20th century, many immigrant men living and working in the United States desired wives from their native lands. Matchmakers, armed with pictures of the men who were unable to travel home to find a bride and recommendations from family members, paired couples and sent the girls, frequently referred to as “picture brides” to America to meet their mates.

It is a group of these picture brides whose lives form the basis for Julie Otsuka’s anticipated second novel. As with her debut, When the Emperor Was Divine, Otsuka follows the fortunes of persons of Japanese descent living in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Interestingly, her trademark style is very impersonal. In When the Emperor Was Divine, most of the story is told in third person limited omniscient. The Buddha in the Attic is told in first person plural, attempting to convey the variety of responses of the picture brides to their new life, resulting in passages such as the one below, which describes the women’s first nights with their husbands:

That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word. They assumed we were the virgins the matchmakers had promised them we were and they took us with exquisite care…. They took us greedily, hungrily, as though they had been waiting to take us for a thousand and one years. They took us even though we were still nauseous from the boat and the ground had not yet stopped rocking beneath our feet.

Coming from most authors, this would be distancing, but from Otsuka it is universalizing. We see a variety of responses from the different women in different situations that shows both their individuality and the commonalities between them. The result is a beautiful and surprisingly emotionally work culminating with World War II and the “Instructions to all Persons of Japanese Ancestry.” Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Library.
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The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea – Book Review

The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

In May of 2001, a group of men attempted to cross from Mexico to the U.S. through a section of desert ominously referred to as the Devil’s Highway. While they are crossing, they get spooked, thinking the Border Patrol has found them and run, losing their way in the process. After an entire series of calamitous decisions, the men start hoping that the Border Patrol will find them, if only to save their lives.

This is some heart-wrenching nonfiction right here. Seriously.

One thing I think Urrea does particularly well in “The Devil’s Highway” is looking at the different sides of this story. He introduces the¬†perspectives¬†both of the men attempting to cross illegally into the United States and of the Border Patrol, and even tries to get into the head of some of the coyotes to a certain extent.

I also appreciated the way that Urrea presented his bias. I do not mean bias in a denigrating way, everyone has an opinion on immigration, and it is pretty much inevitable that it would an inform a book such as this. Urrea walked a fine line here with making his bias/opinion/what have you obvious enough that I could identify it and see how it influenced how he told the story of these men, but not so overwhelming that the reader would feel preached to.

The most powerful chapter in the book come right about in the middle and is called “Killed by the Light.” It basically details, step-by-step, how one dies from thirst and heat in sparse, beautiful prose. Every word of it pierced my heart, both due to the writing and the fact that I knew this process was happening in each and every of the men lost on the Devil’s Highway. The style and power of this section reminded me of Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels,” which is a very favorable comparison, as that is one of my very favorite books.

I had just a little bit of trouble getting into the very beginning of this book, but once I settled into the very distressing story Urrea was telling me, I was completely rapt. No matter what your views on immigration, I believe that Urrea will bring to life the human tragedy caused by policies on both sides of the border. Very highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound

This review was done with a book I purchased myself.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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