Thursday, December 19, 2013

Fiction Review: When the Emperor Was Divine

My high school son says he doesn’t like reading, but he raved about When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka when he read it for school last year. That is high praise, indeed, and I thoroughly enjoyed Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, so I wanted to read this novel about the Japanese-American internment during World War II for myself.

The slim novel focuses on one family in particular who live in Berkeley in the early 1940’s. They are a fairly typical American family for that time, with a working husband, a housewife who takes care of her family, a 10-year old daughter, a 7-year old son, and a family dog. But they are of Japanese descent, so their whole world changes in an instant on a beautiful spring day in 1942 when the Evacuation Orders show up, posted on every available surface in town.

The mother/wife reacts calmly, methodically packing up a few essentials in suitcases, wrapping up and storing valuables, burying the most valuable items in the backyard, and burning all family photos, letters, and even her wedding kimono – anything that shows a connection to Japan. It is a surreal series of scenes and hard to imagine experiencing, but she remains calm, telling her children they will be going on a trip the next day.

The children take this news in stride and tell her that their teachers already told them they’d be leaving. Their father isn’t coming with them; he was taken away from their home recently, grabbed by serious-looking men in suits while still in his bathrobe and slippers and taken to a prison for suspected crimes against the U.S. The mother and her two children go to the train station the next day and begin a long, dirty journey across the country to an arid salt plain in Utah.

The mother and two children live in a tiny room in a huge internment camp under horrible conditions for over three years, along with thousands of other Japanese-American families who had done nothing wrong. Even after the family returns home after the war ends, nothing is ever the same for them, and they are treated with suspicion by their old friends and neighbors.

No wonder this book affected my son so deeply. It was an awful event in American history that is often glossed over.  This novel is written much as The Buddha in the Attic, in very spare prose, and with no character names. However, The Buddha in the Attic (which was written later but covers the earlier period of history) uses collective pronouns like we and our to tell the story of a whole generation of Japanese “picture brides” brought to America in the early part of the 20th century, while When the Emperor Was Divine tells the story of a national event by focusing on a single family. It is a sparsely told yet emotionally powerful story that has stayed with me (and with my son) long after we finished reading.

144 pages, Anchor Books (a division of Random House)

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