Don’t be misled by the small size of this book. It’s an amazing, wonderful book that will surprise and delight you.
Otsuka, author of When the Emperor Was Divine, does something in this book that few authors would have the courage to try: she writes in the first person plural. The narrative voice is roughly that of the Japanese mail-order wife who arrives in the United States from Japan to consummate an arranged marriage in the early years of the 20th century. It’s not the voice of a Japanese emigrant wife, it’s the voice of all of the emigrant wives.
The women come in ships.
“On the boat we slept down below, in steerage, where it was filthy and dim. Our beds were narrow metal racks stacked one on top of the other and our mattresses were hard and thin and darkened with the stains of other journeys, other lives. Our pillows were stuffed with dried wheat hulls. Scraps of food littered the passageways between berths and the floors were wet and slick. There was one porthole, and in the evening, after the hatch was closed, the darkness filled with whispers.”
What were the women whispering about? Everything that concerned them, and they were concerned about everything - husbands, sex and, above all, the new land and new culture they were entering.
“The people were said to eat nothing but meat and their bodies were covered with hair (we were mostly Buddhist, and did not eat meat, and only had hair in the appropriate places). The trees were enormous. The plains were vast. The women were loud and tall - a full head taller, we had heard, than the tallest of our men. The language was ten times as difficult as our own and the customs were unfathomably strange. Books were read from back to front and soap was used in the bath. Noses were blown on dirty cloths that were stuffed back into pockets only to be taken out later and used again and again. The opposite of white was not red, but black.”
First there are the husbands and marriage - hurdles most women face. Then come the vicissitudes of family: births, deaths, loss, barrenness, unfaithful spouses, affairs, hunger, vice and more. The challenges these women face is underlined not only by the strangeness of their adopted home but by what they have left behind.
“On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day that we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee.”
And the reality of their new world quickly sank in: discrimination and hard work.
“We settled at the edges of their towns, where they would let us. And when they would not - Do not let sundown find you in this county, their signs sometimes said - we traveled on.”
The immigrants picked lettuce, strawberries, grapes and dug potatoes. “And when the harvest season was over, we tied our blanket rolls onto our backs and, cloth bundles in hand, we waited for the next wagon to come, and we traveled on.”
It was a journey undertaken by most immigrant groups in the United States in the early 20th century. There was one huge difference with the Japanese, and it proceeded from one event on Dec. 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor.
After the Japanese attack drew the U.S. into World War II, discrimination stepped up, and many Japanese Americans were removed to internment camps in the West. Otsuka’s chronicles those days in the sad and evocative words of the wives. As she describes the events after the interments, there is a subtle shift in the voice she uses, driving home a point.
Otsuka keeps the language sparse yet evocative, her Hemingway-like descriptions of scenery and events are lyric and transfixing. She seems to nod to the fact that readers have limited tolerance for the collective voice she employs and wisely keeps this tale short, just 129 pages. Although it’s easily read at one sitting, few readers will be able to dip into it for just a few pages. Once you engage with this book, it won’t let you leave it, not until you enjoy the last word in the last sentence.