On a sunny day in Berkely, California, in 1942, a woman sees a sign in a post office window, returns to her house, and matter-of-factly begins to pack her family's possessions. Like thousands of other Japanese Americans, the have been reclassified virtually overnight as enemy aliens, and they are about to be uprooted from their home and sent to a dusty internment camp in the Utah destert.
Just as the world is shattered by the attack on Pearl Harbor, so this nameless family finds its world splintered into pieces. The father is taken into custody by the FBI in the middle of the night. Shortly after that, the others are given very short notice to pack up whatever they can in one suitcase each, and report to a staging area, where they are eventually shipped to Utah to spend the war in an internment camp of tar paper shacks. The effects of this relocation of over 100,000 persons of Japanese descent are related through the eyes of the young boy (about 8-9 years old).
Using characters who remain nameless, the author enhances the depersonalizing impact this action had on those who were forced to give up their lives, possessions, and livelihoods. The powerful storytelling enables the reader to feel the emotional, physical, and psychological results of this infamous episode in our country's history. The significance and consequences of actions on all sides are beautifully portrayed without political comment, without assessing blame or pointing fingers. It is a quiet, quintessentially elegant depiction of a bleak and regrettable story.
The reader follows a Japanese-American family through their journey of internment in 1942 when their peaceful family life was uprooted, tossed and turned and split apart because of an irrational fear during WWII.
The writing is eloquent and the beauty lies in the way in which the story is told. It is softly written, like a breeze, yet all the while the reader feels the tempest and overwhelming sadness of the displacement of this gentle, loving family.
Each chapter has a voice of a different person. The journey begins with the sad, pragmatic realization of the mother who begins to pack the possessions.
We then follow the perspective of the children whose father was taken away before the government came for the family.
This is a look at the concept of US vs THEM. This is a look at how "the enemy" is defined. This is a sad look at a snapshot of American history during a troubling time.
The tale is not told in an angry voice, rather, the author takes us down the tearful trail of a Japanese-American family living the American dream in California to lonely, hot, humid, treeless Topaz Utah were they are herded like cattle to swat the flies in the God forsaken dessert.
When the Emperor was Divine is the story of one family as they struggle to prepare, adjust to live within the camp, and come home from a internment camp in the Utah desert. The story is told from the perspective of members of the family in alternating chapters. The first chapter is told from the mother's point of view as they are forced to prepare for the evacuation. The fear of the unknown and the struggle to maintain their pride is palpable. The second chapter is told by the daughter as they travel to their new home, and dealing with their loss sense of identity. The third chapter is from the young son's perspective as they adjust and learn to live within the camp. The final chapter is told from either a more mature son's perspective or a combination of both the boy and girls voices telling of a once proud father, who is now just a broken paranoid shell and a family struggling to put their life together in a world they are now very unfamiliar to the world they left.
Each chapter is unique and distinct. Normally a story told like this can be choppy, but here they flow together with no harsh transitions. This book is unrelentingly depressing and dark. The family makes the best of their situation, but they are clearly broken and they are never too far from crumbling under the stress. The only thing holding them together are their bonds. Hope is in short supply.
The only real problem with this book is that it is far too short. The four chapters only cover the first few months of the war and the aftermath for this one family. It's not enough to explore the entirity of the effects of forced relocation on the family. This book calls for a much more in depth exploration of internment. But really this is only a minor defect of a well written book, that I'm glad I was able to snipe off the wishlist.
I like Otsuka's style of unfolding the tale. She doesn't ram home that the family are Japanese and what that means during the period, chosing to slowly include bits about the prejudice that developed after Pearl Harbour. She also doesn't provide names for any of the family members, reinforcing the idea that they were interned because of what they represented, not what they had done, and also reflecting the commonly-held thought that all 'Japs' were the same, individual identities were unimportant. I also enjoyed the unemotional writing which leaves the reader to think their own way through what internment might have been like.
While this is a work of historical fiction, internment isn't history. Guatanamo Bay and, in Britain, detention under the Terrorism Act and the skewing of stop and search towards those who 'look like terrorists', make When The Emperor Was Divine a relevant and thought-provoking novel.
The progression of the story is told be all four family members, which adds a rich depth to this tale. The mother, at the beginning, systematically packs up her home. The daughter, on the voyage to Utah, is upset about her weathered scarf. The son, at the prison camp in Utah, dreams about reuniting with his father. The father, upon returning home, relives the interrogations and is madder than hell. And who could blame him?
This is an important book for all Americans to read, especially if you're interested in World War II fiction. Perhaps we can draw some lessons from these mistakes that were made not so long ago.
The story is told in four chapters, each one from the point of view of one character. They are given no names, just "the woman," "the girl," "the boy," and "the man"--a device that at once makes them universal and nonentities--and each section is told in a unique voice.
A truly wonderful book. I was surprised that my students didn't like it as well as the last book, Girl with a Pearl Earring.
We used to try and imagine what it would be like when we returned home. Our phone would ring off the hook. (How was it?) Neighborhood ladies bearing angel food cakes would line up at our front door to welcome us back (Yoo hoo, we know you're in there!). ... We would accept all invitations. Go everywhere. ... But of course it did not happen like that.
Julie Otsuka's slim novel captures the emotion and trauma of this dark period in American history. The country was reeling from an attack on its own soil. Those resembling the attackers were considered evil spies. Citizens of specific ethnic origin were rounded up and sent to camps -- prisons, really -- ostensibly to protect the American people.
Is this really any different from the country's response to the events of September 11, 2001? Will we ever learn?
Otsuka's novel is perhaps even more effective because her protagonists - four members of one family - are never named. They are simply, the mother, the father, the boy and the girl. The unnamed family members could be any Japanese-American family of that time. The father is spirited away in the night; the rest of the family is given only a few days to pack their suitcases and leave their homes, transported first to processing centers - in stables - and then to a desolate desert camp in Utah. The psychological, physical and emotional effects of this callous uprooting are devastating. Otsuka's eye for detail and ear for dialogue are simply superb. Her novel is a microcosmic look at what happened to tens of thousands of families across the western U.S.
I was immediately reminded of the excellent YA classic, FAREWELL TO MANZANAR, which I read many years ago, one of many books about the relocation camps. But Otsuka's WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE is especially stunning and unique in its multiple and anonymous points of view. This is an outstanding fictional look at a shameful episode in our country's history. Highly recommended.
Written from the point of view of unnamed characters this short elegantly written novel taught me about events that were previously unknown to me. How can writing be so direct yet so deep and unashamedly honest, almost point blank? There were moments when it felt as if this was not a work of fiction and with a sudden jerk you are catapulted into the reality that this did actually happen to real people and all not so very long ago.
As someone who has read a number of wartime experience type of books I realised that I was woefully ignorant about the plight of American Japanese aliens during the second world war.
I wonder how we can learn from this novel … wherever we are in the world …
I would have given this book to my aunt to read for she enjoys good books as much as I do, but I knew that she would not want to read it. She, in a small way, is a victim of this time as well. My aunt, a most reasonable, fair-minded person in every other way, has lived all of her life since her childhood, unable to see movies, TV programs or read books like this one because she grew up in an atmosphere that preached total distrust of Japanese-Americans. She was a very solemn, obedient child; if society told her that she must suspect Japanese people of foul deeds and nefarious motives she did it because it was her civic duty. It's been nearly 70 years since the end of the war, but she has never been able to shake this prejudice, much though she knows how unfair it is. It is a part of her now and forever, just as the horrible experience of being sent off to prison camp was for the internees.
(The mother declining a job offer after the war): “I was afraid I might accidentally remember who I was and … offend myself.” (p. 129)
World War, 1939-1945-California-Fiction
Japanese American families-Fiction
What strikes me about the book is the author's superb control of tone: plain and unsensational, suggesting a superficial sense of resignation that masks a clear-eyed anger about the injustices these internees suffered. My only criticism is that sometimes the technique of deliberate understatement serves to distance the reader from the characters. I wish I knew more about the mother, in particular, who is the most fully drawn character in the book. She comes off as pragmatic and tough as nails, and her descent into depression is very sad.