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Book review: <i>When The Emperor Was Divine</i> by Julie Otsuka

It’s 1942, and overnight, Americans of Japanese decent are turned from citizens to enemy aliens. This is a circumstance that will change their lives, not just for the duration of the war, but forever.

The story

It’s the spring of 1942, and the inhabitants of Berkley are living their lives as usual. Or mostly usual; there have been stealthy disappearances in the night as the FBI arrest Japanese immigrant men. Then the signs appear. All those of Japanese origin must pack up, leave their houses, and are taken to internment camps in the Utah desert. Just a year ago, they were Americans, now they are enemy aliens.

The internment camp is far, far from where many of these citizens ever imagined they would be. The summers are horrendously hot, the winters are freezing cold. And while the residents may not be suffering at the hands of their captors in a way that is overt or physical, many of the prisoners suffer mentally and spiritually during their three year captivity.

When the war is won, the prisoners are free to leave as citizens again. But how will their fellow citizens see them?

When The Emperor Was Divine follows a family through their imprisonment in a Utah internment camp, the upheaval of their lives, and the way their treatment by their country and other citizens shaped their existences.

The style

When The Emperor Was Divine is divided into five chapters; it’s a pretty short book. Each chapter follows a different character in the family. The first chapter follows the woman/wife/mother character, and narrates in the third person limited up to the point where the mother, son and daughter get on the train. The train ride is narrated in the third person limited from the daughter/sister’s point of view. The third chapter covers the family’s experiences in the internment camp, and is narrated in the third person limited by the son/brother, who is the younger child. The forth chapter diverges sharply from this pattern, moving into the first person from the point of view of either both or one of the children to narrate their return to Berkley after the war. And the final chapter (more like an epilogue) is an impassioned first person narration from the father/husband figure.

This character play worked very nicely in the context of the plot. While none of the characters displayed distinct characteristics during their own narrations, inklings of their individuality were gleaned during other people’s narrations. The characters were also not named, going by the generic titles of “the woman”, “the girl”, “the boy”, “his sister”, “our father”, etcetera. This endowed these characters with archetypal qualities, making them not just one of the families that this occurred to, but simultaneously all of the families in a similar situation. Each narrative chapter brought something new to the story, and each narrative revealed slightly more about the lives and tragedies being played out while still managing to come across as objective narrations. The more I think about it, the cleverer I think it is...

Julie Otsuka’s prose is great. Her descriptions are evocative, her characters have weight, dimension, and archetypal qualities, and the subtlety of her story is breathtaking. The whole story is understated, and then ends up feeling like a punch. The humanity of the story is just fabulous. It really sneaks up on the reader. If I have a complaint, it’s that covers a three year period and I just didn’t feel it in the length of the book—it took me a while to reconcile this fact. Although that could just be me selfishly wanting more story.

Who is this book for?

This story is a little out of the ordinary, as far as war stories go. It’s intense, but you don’t notice how effective it is until you’ve finished. It’s also a unique perspective about the lives of Japanese Americans after the second world war, which is something we don’t often consider. If you have the slightest interest in any of this, When The Emperor Was Divine is a great read.

If you like this book, you would also like...

There are some other great and originally written books about war, and the ramifications for civilians. Why can’t I think of any of them right now? I will update this as I do.

In short

Title: When The Emperor Was Divine
Author: Julie Otsuka
Publisher: Anchor Books
ISBN: 0385721911
Year published: 2002
Pages: 144
Genre(s): Contemporary literature, War
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