Otsuka tells the stories of “picture wives,” who traveled from Japan to the United States in the early 1900s to marry and start new lives. High hopes (inflated by future husbands who deceived them about the lives they would lead in America) were quickly dashed by the realities of hard farm labor or domestic servitude. Otsuka’s style, a chorus of voices, is highly effective. At times, she blurs together common experiences, and at others, she presents an endless diversity of hopes and disappointments, joys and suffering.
The women in this book are faced with unjust treatment at every turn. They are continually objectified– worked to exhaustion and even death in the fields, coerced into being sexually available to husbands and white men, subject to the indignities of racism and fetishization by white employers. Most endure a hard life of poverty and years of back breaking labor. They work to give their children all they can and are heartbroken when these efforts never seem to be enough to open the doors to mainstream American life.
As WWII begins, fear and panic set in. All are constantly on guard, preparing for the inevitable day when husbands will be taken away. They sleep with their clothes and shoes on. They wonder what exactly they did to be seen as traitors. Some of the most poignant moments are those of the last day. As families are evacuated to camps, stores are closed and houses left to be raided, all that they have worked for is simply torn away. This is an important book that makes us look more critically at a cultural obsession with Americanness and the fear of suspicious “outsiders.” It’s a recurring story, sadly, and Otsuka even draws some lines right out of a 2001 Rumsfeld speech. It’s too easy to look away and think some other group’s marginalization doesn’t concern “us.” This book is clearly still relevant, it’s almost a fable, and the saddest part is the way it’s a history that continues to this day.