Laura Reynolds Adler

Novelist Julie Otsuka cannot remember when she first learned of the picture brides—women who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s to marry men from their native countries, having exchanged only pictures and sometimes letters. Growing up in California, where many Japanese picture brides landed, Otsuka knew the grandchildren of brides.

“It’s a very common first-generation story,” she explains during a phone interview from Manhattan. But as an adult, she was fascinated by them. “They were so brave. And they were young, too. And there are so many interesting stories that I heard in my research and I wanted to tell . . .” she says in a rush, and even with a bad phone connection her excitement is audible 700 miles away. “I wanted to be able to tell them all.”

And so she did, making a daring narrative choice in her frequently mesmerizing, slender new novel about the Japanese picture brides, The Buddha in the Attic.

“On the boat we were mostly virgins,” the first chapter begins, using the first person plural—or the “we” voice as Otsuka calls it. The chapter concludes some 16 exhilarating pages later with their arrival in San Francisco: “This is America, we would say to ourselves, “there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.” It is a voice that Otsuka maintains through their first nights with their husbands, the birth of their children, and years of toil and sacrifice as they struggle to find their way in a country that will later betray them.

“They were so brave. And they were young, too.”

Finding that “we” voice was pivotal for Otsuka, an admitted perfectionist whose critically acclaimed first novel, When the Emperor was Divine, was published in 2002. “For me it was a very freeing voice. It allowed me to show a bigger world than I could have if I were using the point of view of one of the brides only.” Although the novel is panoramic in scope, Otsuka has the moves of cinematographer, zooming in for close-ups, then pulling back for wide lens group shots: “One of us filled the sleeves of her white silk wedding kimono with stones and wandered out into the sea, and we still say a prayer for her every day.”

“I think a lot of them ended up unhappy marriages,” Otsuka says. “I think most of them probably felt betrayed from the moment they arrived in America because most of the men were much older than they appeared to be in their photographs. Or else they had sent photographs of other people.” They were also frequently poor. But if the novel begins like many an immigrant story—upon arrival in an America unlike the America promised—it concludes like no other. In the penultimate chapter, the picture brides and their families are forced to leave their homes, since Japanese and Japanese-Americans, many of them American citizens, were considered potential traitors and arrested and/or sent to camps or detention centers in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. The final chapter is narrated by the townspeople left behind following the internment. It’s an eerie, haunting reminder of an ugly chapter of American history.

A master of understatement and apt detail, Otsuka writes of a barber “who left on crutches with an American legion cap pulled down low over his head,” and of American daughters, “college girls . . . who left wearing American flag pins on their sweaters and Phi Beta Kappa keys dangling from gold chains around their necks.”

Although a Kirkus reviewer praised the new novel as “lovely prose poem that gives a bitter history lesson,” Otsuka laughingly resists the designation of history teacher. Rather, her stories seem rooted in curiosity and a desire to understand. Following the completion of her first book, set during the internment, Otsuka had unanswered questions:  What would it be like to be “a white person in a town right after the Japanese had been taken away. What would you think and how would you process the absence of your former neighbors?” Those questions led her to write the final chapter of The Buddha in the Attic, which became her point of entry into the book.

Similarly, her first book, When the Emperor Was Divine, “was a way of trying to understand my mother and figure out what had happened to her.” At the age of 10, Otsuka’s mother was interned along with her own brother and mother. Her mother’s father was arrested the day after Pearl Harbor, falsely accused of spying. Yet Otsuka’s mother talked little of the internment when Otsuka was growing up. “As a parent, maybe my mother just wanted to protect her children from that knowledge, and let us grow up knowing that America was a very safe place.”

Otsuka started out by writing in a local café—she still does most of her work there, in a place she calls her “lucky corner” amongst a cadre of writers and scholars. And she is still trying to understand her mother and the past through her writing: Otsuka's current work in progress encompasses “memory and forgetting,” a subject of interest because her mother suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Of her mother’s reticence to talk about the internment when Otsuka was younger, the devoted daughter is “in a way . . . grateful. Because I did grow up thinking I could do whatever I wanted to do.”

Laura Reynolds Adler is a freelance writer in Chicago.

Novelist Julie Otsuka cannot remember when she first learned of the picture brides—women who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s to marry men from their native countries, having exchanged only pictures and sometimes letters. Growing up in California, where many Japanese picture brides landed, Otsuka knew the grandchildren of brides. “It’s a very […]

The actions of Norris Lamb may occasionally embarrass you. The 55-year-old postmaster and hero of Carrie Brown's new novel, Lamb in Love, makes his first appearance poking out from behind a chestnut tree, hoping to catch a glimpse of Vida Stephen, to whom he is afraid to declare his love. They may even make you cringe, as when he sneaks into Vida's bedroom to bestow an anonymous gift of a silk nightgown and robe, leaving a fearful Vida to believe that there is something not quite right about her secret admirer. Yet with every squirm Norris induces, you also long to pull him aside, put your arm around him, and offer him advice and encouragement in his campaign to win the 41-year-old Vida. For he is of such generous and unimpeachable heart that he proves to be as beguiling as the novel that bears his name.


“Vida is almost old enough now to be considered a spinster,” Brown writes. “And no one has ever known her to have a young man. What a pity, people say. She might have had children of her own. But Norris knows — he believes he alone knows — what is still there to be rescued and revived. He imagines that he sees what others, lacking the wondrous prism of his passion, cannot. She has been waiting, he thinks. All along, she has been waiting. And now, could she love him? Could she? . . . I will love her so well, he thinks, that she will have to love me back. That's the way it works.”


“Norris is so well-intentioned,” Carrie Brown says in a phone interview from her home in Sweet Briar, Virginia. “He makes tons of mistakes. He makes them over and over again. But he's trying so hard to do the right thing.” It is a quality he shares with the hero of her first novel, Rose's Garden, which recently won the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. Vida Stephen, the object of Norris's affection, also shares this quality. “I'm really interested, I've discovered, in people's efforts to be good in the world. It feels to me a slightly old-fashioned concern. But in a lot of ways, that is what I almost always come back to. Obviously, both Norris and Vida are, to greater or lesser degrees, actually pretty conscious about living their lives virtuously, in some way.”


Indeed, Vida has devoted her life to the mute and motherless Manford Perry, to whom she became a full-time nanny while still a young woman, and before he was diagnosed as severely mentally and physically handicapped. But Vida loves Manford fiercely, and Brown delineates Manford with such resonant, finely calibrated details that the reader comes to love him as well: his endearing way of walking with his hands bouncing on the air; the way he pulls Vida's hand to his cheek; the occasional shyness that causes him to cover his face with his hands; and peculiar, magical gifts. (He creates shadow play animals with his nimble hands and decorates bakery cakes with sugary weeds and flowers resembling those in the gardens of Southend House, the once beautiful estate where Manford and Vida live and which Manford's absent father allowed to fall into ruin when he learned of his son's disabilities.)


Though blessed with rare empathy and imagination, Brown's tender portrait of Manford is also infused with life experience. One of Brown's three children has cerebral palsy, and although her daughter's impairments are all physical, not mental, Brown says she and her husband have had “plenty of experience in the community of the disabled.”

Author Photo
“Obviously, I didn't set out to write a treatise on how we ought to treat the disabled in our culture and in our community. But it's certainly clear to me that the world can be a cruel place if you're a child,” Brown says. “The world can be a cruel place if you're disabled. There are opportunities for cruelty at every turn.” She pauses, then adds in an uncharacteristically world-weary voice, “You don't really have the whole market on it if you're disabled. But you come in for a good share of it.”


Even kindly Norris, who experienced cruelty as an awkward boy and who would never treat Manford cruelly himself, is not initially comfortable in Manford's presence. What is he afraid of? Norris wonders. “That Manford will do something peculiar? Yes, that.” And by extension, that people will view him as strange if they see him associating with Manford. For in his own way, he is as isolated from others as Manford; he has no intimate friends, and like Vida, has never experienced love or a romantic relationship. “He has certainly had the experience of loneliness,” Brown says. “But he has lived in this village all his life . . . So he does not feel like a stranger in the world. And I think in a way, it isn't until he falls in love with Vida that it comes to him with a lot of painful force that he has been terribly isolated. And that if he doesn't make something happen here with her now, that he never will.”


The urgency of Norris's love, “at last, at such an age,” and his hope that Vida may return his love, give Lamb in Love a poignancy that is hard-won and rare.


Indeed, that this man whose hopes have been repeatedly dashed, this man who has never danced a step but believes that he may yet dance “like a gazelle,” comes to seem a marvel of sorts, and his hope an act of courage. “I think he's really kind of heroic in a way,” says his creator. “He's such a charming guy. And such a nuisance, too, in some ways.”


And what if that charming nuisance who “shouldered his way” into her fictional world were to show up at the doorstep of Sanctuary Cottage, the old farmhouse she shares with her husband and three children? Would she welcome him into her life? Could she imagine herself hanging out with him and Vida?


“Well, I don't know that they're the ‘hanging out sort,'” she laughs. “But in a way, I think they are the people in my life. I sometimes wonder whether people ever look around and think: ‘These are my friends? This is my life?'” She laughs. “If you ever stop to do that, you can sort of see what you life is made of . . . I'd hate for that to sound as though I was surrounded by a group of wild eccentrics. Because I don't believe I am. But I certainly find myself in communities over and over again where I cross paths with those people all the time . . . I think they are the people of my life.”



Laura Reynolds Adler lives in New York City and regularly interviews authors.

The actions of Norris Lamb may occasionally embarrass you. The 55-year-old postmaster and hero of Carrie Brown's new novel, Lamb in Love, makes his first appearance poking out from behind a chestnut tree, hoping to catch a glimpse of Vida Stephen, to whom he is afraid to declare his love. They may even make you […]

Janice Graham never dreamed she'd settle in Kansas, let alone set a novel there. Yet in 1991, almost 20 years after the Wichita native ditched the sunflower state for the pleasures of Paris, she returned to her hometown. A single mother, Graham wanted to raise her daughter in proximity to Graham's parents. It was a drastic change for the self-described gypsy, who for the last ten years had lived alternately in Paris and Los Angeles, where she worked as a screenwriter. And it was a move that could have meant the end of her writing career: she stopped writing for five years after her daughter was born and began teaching French and English in the Wichita public schools. Instead, it may well have been the smartest, albeit unintentional, career move of her life. I am convinced that if I were still writing about Paris, no one would buy it, the author laughs.

Unlike her two unpublished novels, set in Paris, Greece, Los Angeles, and Israel, she has set her new novel, a love story entitled Firebird, in the Flint Hills of Kansas, the largest unbroken expanse of tallgrass prairie in North America. Graham was familiar with the Flint Hills from her student days at the University of Kansas: she drove past the seemingly endless rangeland on her visits to and from her parents in Wichita. But she had no interest in it.

"I was doing my degree in French, and I was very attracted to older civilizations," she explains. Not to barrenness." It was only after her return to Kansas that the Flint Hills took hold of the author's imagination. "After living in two very big cosmopolitan areas, the wide open spaces looked very very appealing. And I became very attached to them."

It is an attachment she shares to a degree with Ethan Brown, the 43-year-old hero of Firebird, for whom the Flint Hills are his greatest devotion. "Ethan Brown was in love with the Flint Hills," the novel begins. "His father had been a railroad man, not a rancher, but you would have thought he had been born into a dynasty of men connected to this land, the way he loved it. He loved it the way certain peoples love their homeland, with a spiritual dimension . . . He had never loved a woman quite like this, but that was about to change."

Ethan is in fact practically engaged to Katie Anne, a rancher's daughter who shares his dream of raising cattle on the land they both love. "Ethan wanted very much to like Katie Anne," Graham writes. "There was so much about her he did like." For although Ethan is compassionate and intelligent, a lawyer with a Ph.D. in English and a passion for the romantic poets that has earned him the nickname Wordsworth, this man of conscience is about to do the unconscionable: marry a woman he does not love.

"I think people can have a conscience in every part of their life except in their personal relationships with the opposite sex," Graham explains. "I don't think finding a soulmate was ever anything that he thought would happen to him or that he felt would ever be a goal in his life. I think he was so focused on a way of living." Indeed, he barely seems cognizant that it is wrong to marry a woman he does not love; he views marriage to Katie Anne as part and parcel of his dream of cattle and his own piece of land. But just as he is within grasp of his long-held dream, he meets Annette Zeldin, a Kansas-born concert violinist in town from Paris to settle her mother's estate, and they fall in love.

"I really wanted to do a love triangle where everybody won," Graham says. That inherently difficult task was compounded by the obstacles Graham placed in her characters way: Annette's aversion to the land Ethan loves; Katie Anne's resolve to hold onto Ethan though she knows he loves Annette; and Ethan's realization that if he abandons Katie Anne, whose father holds enormous sway in Cottonwood Falls, he will be made a virtual outcast. Whether all three characters win is debatable, but Graham's resolution of their dilemma, which involves elements of the spiritual and supernatural and earned the novel comparisons to The Horse Whisperer, will surprise even the most prescient of readers.

The 50-year-old author says the life of the spirit and the soul is an important component of her existence, "though you don't see me walking around . . . under a veil," she chuckles. With her open manner and hearty laugh, she seems more earthy than otherworldly, and in spite of receiving one million dollars for the sale of Firebird and her next two novels, she plans to eventually resume teaching French part-time because she "like[s] having one foot in the real world." (She is currently on a leave of absence.) Graham came to writing later than most, at the age of 30, after taking a screenwriting course at the University of Southern California film school. "I thought this is it. This is what I want to do." And, she adds, "I had stories to tell by then." She arrived at film school fresh from Israel, where she had worked on a kibbutz for six months, prior to which she'd lived in Paris for four years, and briefly Greece and Turkey. Though Firebird is not set in those far-off places, Graham feels that her travels have enhanced her ability to write about her homeland.

"It creates a backdrop and a foundation that is . . ." she pauses, "I keep coming back to the word ambivalent. You don't see things as flat. You see them as multi-meaning, multi-texture, multi-faceted . . . I particularly see this area like that because I have lived away and come back to it."

The young woman who once disdained the Flint Hills now rhapsodizes about them as a mythical place of amazing variety, and writes of the dangers that lurk there, obscured by the deceptive harmony of waving grasses. And her ambivalence for that place enhances her depictions of the wide-ranging emotions it inspires in her characters, from Annette's wish to distance herself from this terrifying space where there was nothing but prairie forever and ever, to her later insistence that she wants to remain under that wide expanse of sky filled with armies of clouds hanging so low Annette felt she could reach up and touch them, because that is where Ethan is.

Though Firebird is unmistakably a love story, Graham corrects me when I refer to it as a romance novel. "I'm sure that it will appeal to romance readers, but I don't see it in that genre at all . . . I would not like to see my books categorized in any particular category . . . I think what I'm writing will have a broad appeal to women." Of course, she hopes that her novel will appeal to men, too. But after writing action-adventures and thrillers "to satisfy the dictates of the film market," she explains, she relishes writing what is meaningful to her. "This is mine," says the onetime screenwriter, literally having the last laugh. "You know, whether people like it or not, this is my work. It's all my work. Nobody else came in and told me what to write here."

Laura Reynolds Adler lives in New York City and regularly interviews authors.

Janice Graham never dreamed she'd settle in Kansas, let alone set a novel there. Yet in 1991, almost 20 years after the Wichita native ditched the sunflower state for the pleasures of Paris, she returned to her hometown. A single mother, Graham wanted to raise her daughter in proximity to Graham's parents. It was a […]

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