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.