The Picture Bride is a historical novel that transcends its unique historical moment to touch on experiences and themes the reader will find familiar: the significance of family, the trials of marriage and love, loss and grief of loved ones lost to death or distance. The novel revolves around the migration of picture brides from East Asia to Hawai’i and the Western United States, a practice that was rampant in the early few decades of the twentieth century. Japanese and Korean men left their homelands to find work on Hawai’ian plantations, and as they accrued a little bit of wealth they found themselves in a primarily homosocial world, absent of East Asian women. To find love and fulfill their duty to wed, they would engage the services of a matchmaker and seek out a bride from their home country. The technology of the day limited the contact between potential bride and groom to correspondence and a photograph, hence the name given to this marital transaction: both the bride and groom would have nothing to more than a photograph to base their physical attraction on.
Many men who sought wives in this way were long past the typical marriage age of men in their home countries. Aware of their advanced age and how this might deter a young woman from wanting to marry them, they often used a fake photograph of someone else or a photograph from their youth. Picture brides discovered the deception on their arrival, too late to turn back — if they had the money to do so — without suffering humiliation or possible repudiation by their families.
Of course, such arrangements also resulted in personality mismatches and other deceptions of character, on both sides. In the end, all the migrants have no choice but to set those differences and loyalties aside; the people on the plantation and scattered across the islands become the only family they can have.
This is a story of the pain and joy of being an immigrant, of what lengths we have to go through to find our place in the world. The novel focuses on loss of family and the gaining of new ones. How these young women adapted, thrived, or wilted in their new homes so far away from their homelands is what unfolds in the novel. I won’t spoil it for you so I will stop my review here.
The Picture Bride is a novel about what it takes to live one’s life as best they can, with what they have and what they have lost.