Book Review: When The Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka is a book I accidentally read twice.  Has anyone else ever had that kind of lightbulb moment, when things start to sound vaguely familiar?

For me that rarely happens because I generally get rid of my books after I’ve read them.  They go to friends or off to the library; I keep very few.  But for some reason I kept this one, and it only took 11 pages for that reading lighbulb to go on with a scene so vivid and visual and unforgettable that at first I wasn’t sure if I’d seen it in a movie or read it in a book (this book).  I had to read a little bit further to realize that yes, I’d read this before, probably when it first came out in 2002.

It is spring of 1942, in the early days of WWII.  Evacuation orders for over 100,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast have been posted.  Japanese AMERICANS who’ve done nothing wrong; who love baseball and school, who own stores and homes and little white dogs, whose only crime is their ancestry, are suddenly enemy aliens and ordered to leave their homes to reside in internment camps far away.

This book is about one family’s experiences.  Told in sparse, simple prose, it focuses on the small things, the quiet details.  It feels bare.  Direct.  Subtle.  Sad.

The first chapter is told from the mother’s perspective.  The father has been taken away for questioning late at night, months before.  Taken away in his slippers and his bathrobe, with the neighbors peering out from behind their curtains.

Now the mother (never named) is making careful and necessary preparations for the rest of the family to leave their home in Berkley, California, not to join the father but to be taken to a different place. She’s packing up the house, making painful decisions about the pets, waiting for the children to come home from school.  She doesn’t know where they are going or how long they’ll be gone or who will live in their home while they are away; she only knows that they have to go and can only bring what they can carry.

The next chapter is from the perspective of the eleven year old daughter, on the train and then later on a bus toward their destination in Utah.  It’s hot and they are bored, cranky, sad.  Their minds drift to other places.

The next two chapters are told by the 8 year old son/brother during the family’s time at camp and are filled with a kids view of the heat, the white dust, the cold, the hunger, the boredom, the thin walls, the cramped quarters, the lines, the barbed wire, the armed guards, the censored letters, the longing for old times, the wondering about friends at home.  Finally they do return home but things are not the same, will never be the same.

The very end of the book, after the father’s homecoming, is a political tirade that seemed unnecessary and tacked on.  The stark realities of the family’s experience and the injustice of it all is a potent enough political statement all by itself.

At 144 pages, When the Emperor Was Divine is an understated, extremely well written book with a poetic feel that pays close attention to detail and focuses more on feelings than on actual events during this painful and ugly period in our country’s history.

I loved this book and highly recommend it for anyone over the age of 12.  It’s a keeper.

26 Responses

  1. I probably would have quit reading once I realized I’d read it before. This sounds like a wonderful book!

    • I would normally agree with you, but this one was worth re-reading. It was like watching a favorite movie a second time. You know where it’s going but it’s ok because you want to go there.

  2. I was always baffled when that happened to other people, until it finally happened to me! The sad thing is that the book was so forgettable that I don’t remember what it was even now, haha.

    • The only thing forgettable to me was the cover, which is understated in the extreme. They should have done something more with the cover, IMO.

  3. Sounds fascinating; adding it to the TBR list now!

  4. It happens to me much more frequently with movies, because I get them from Netflix and my library both, but it has happened with books, especially mystery novels in a series. I have a lot of trouble with Cara Black’s books becuase they all have similar titles, Murder in Montmaret, Murder in the Marias, Murder in the Bastille. When I find one I can never remember if I’ve been there before.

  5. We missed you yesterday!

  6. Yes, I’ve had this happen to me several times! It usually only take a dozen or two pages before I figure it out and smack myself in the head!

    Until recently, I was totally clueless about the internment camps. I was horrified at the whole thing, and was really disappointed and embarassed that our country would do such a thing. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was a great fictional account of this time period. I love that you have recommended this for anyone over 12. This might be something my daughter would like. Great review!

  7. I really enjoyed this book as well and I agree with your assessment of it as poetic. Here is my review in case you are interested:

  8. I recently read The Opposite of Me by Julie Buxbaum – I kept thinking… this sounds so familar!

    I need to add this book to my list. thanks!

  9. This has happened to me but the publisher actually changed the title of the book so I thought I was reading a totally different book! Talk about a mind-blowing experience.

  10. When the Emperor was Divine sounds very touching and worth reading–I may add it to my TBR list. Like your commenter, Sandy, I’ve just read the novel The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which also features the internment camps where Japanese Americans were forced to live.

  11. I’ve done that once or twice but it was with a reprinted short story. I tend to remember whether or not I’ve read something before, especially if I own it. I’m a book hoarder 🙂

    Great review and the photos are a really great touch!

  12. I’ve had that dejavu feeling reading or rather, re-reading a book I didn’t realize I had already read. But on that one (Atonement) I couldn’t remember how it unfolded so I ‘m glad I reread. I think I liked it MUCH better the second time.

  13. I’ve been meaning to read this one for quite a while … must get to it soon.

  14. I am going to have to add this one to my list to read!

  15. Wow, what a great review! I think this is a book I would really like but before reading your review I had not heard very much about it. I am glad this one is a keeper!

  16. Great review. I’m surprised this one hasn’t gotten more publicity in the bloggy world.

  17. I’ve had that happen to me before! Glad to hear this is a keeper because I’ve wanted to read this one for awhile. I hope it’s okay that I linked to your review on War Through the Generations.


  18. I am not sure this has ever happened to me. I ‘d love to read this book. It reminds me of Snow Falling on Cedars. I really loved that book. I had not heard of this book before. Thanks for the review.

  19. I accidentally re-read books all the time and then once I realize I just keep reading. This sounds like a good one

  20. This sounds great! I’ll look into it.

  21. […] There’s an excellent review of When the Emperor Was Divine on the blog Books on the Brain. […]

  22. I agree, that one scene sticks with you and I have no idea how she did it….without crying! This was so powerful, while I do agree that the end chapter is a bit over the top, I think its the father’s POV and he’s definitely broken from his experiences and wishes that he could rage like that.

  23. I met the author. She said the publisher told her to take the last chapter off, that it was not the same voice as the rest of the book and that it will not go over well with the public. Otsuka said the father’s voice came to her one day and he needed to be heard and told the publisher, even if it meant that the book would not sell as many books. I must admit during the whole book, I wondered about the father. I appreciated the last chapter, I could feel the father’s pain in it and it gave me closure as to what happened to him. The voice was different but the father had a different story that we didn’t see and can only guess what he went through.

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