In the 1920’s a large number of young Japanese women travelled to Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States as “picture brides”. These women were lured by letters and photos of potential working men in the USA, however the men sent old, retouched or even fake photos of themselves posing with luxury items that they did not own. After travelling by boat to their location these brides were met by grooms who were between 10-15 years older than their brides and then taken to live in squalid living conditions. Generally plantations that practiced segregation of the Japanese workers.
Julie Otsuka’s novel follows innumerable tales of these brides. It is not a novel that follows a single bride, nor a group of families, but more a collection of brides. In a poetic style that is raw, short and sparse we follow these women through their harrowing ordeal. The novel opens with the brides on the boat:
On the boat the first thing we did – before deciding who we liked and didn’t like, before telling each other which one of the islands we were from, and why we were leaving, even before bothering to learn each other’s names – was compare photographs of our husbands. They were handsome young men with dark eyes and full heads of hair and skin that was smooth and unblemished. Their chins were strong. The posture, good. Their noses were straight and high. They looked like our brothers and fathers back home, only better dressed, in gray frock coats and fine Western three-piece suits. Some of them were standing on sidewalks in front of wooden A-frame houses with white picket fences and neatly mowed lawns, and some were leaning in driveways against Model T Fords. Some were sitting in studios on stiff high-backed chairs with their hands neatly folded and staring straight into the camera, as though they were ready to take on the world. All of them had promised to be there, waiting for us, in San Francisco, when we sailed into port.
Fifteen of the twenty four sections in chapter one begin with the phrase “on the boat” and every subsequent chapter is similar in style. We follow the women through their journey, their reality upon arrival, their living conditions, their pregnancies, their growing children, their employment, their exclusion and eventually what happens to them once World War Two commences.
Interestingly enough there is a quote attributed to Donald Rumsfeld from October 12, 2001 used as a speech by the local mayor and if I hadn’t read the acknowledgements I wouldn’t have known. It did not look out of place. In fact there were numerous sections that could relate to different races in the right here and now:
It was all, of course, because of the stories in the papers. They said that thousands of our men had sprung into action, with clockwork precision, the moment the attack on the island had begun. They said we had flooded the roads with our run-down trucks and jalopies. They said we had signalled to the enemy planes with flares from our fields. They said that the week before the attack several of our children had bragged to their classmates that “something big” was about to happen. They said that those same children, when questioned further by their teachers, had reported that their parents had celebrated the news of the attack for days. They were shouting banzais. The said that in the event of a second attack here on the mainland anyone whose name appeared on the list would more than likely rise up to assist the enemy. They said our truck farmers were foot soldiers in a vast underground army. They’ve got thousands of weapons down below in the vegetable cellars. They said that our houseboys were intelligence agents in disguise. They said that our gardeners were all hiding shortwave radio transmitters in their garden hoses and when the Pacific zero hour struck we’d get busy at once. Burst dams. Burning oil fields. Bombed bridges. Blasted roads. Blocked tunnels. Poisoned reservoirs. And what was to stop one of us from walking into a crowded marketplace with a stick of dynamite tied to our waist? Nothing.
This is a simple but disturbing read about a generation that has almost been forgotten by the history books, a lament for people long gone but at the same time highlighting the current methods we still employ. Although a poignant tale I did find some of the style quite jarring and repetitive but that’s simply personal taste.
Even though a winner of the Pen Faulkner Award for fiction in 2012 I personally can’t see this novel lifting the IMPAC gong, all three I’ve read before this (“The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Get”, “The Map and the Territory” and “From The Mouth Of The Whale”) all rate higher for me than this novel. The winner will be announced next Thursday 6/6/13.