Julie Otsuka

"When the Emperor Was Divine"

(Reviewed by Bill Robinson OCT 31, 2002)

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
In the early days of World War II, the United State interned over 100,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. In the interest of homeland security, these U.S. citizens, with no charges against them save their heritage, were rounded up and taken by train to concentration camps in the desert West.

Read excerptThis was the fate of the grandmother, mother, and uncle of writer Julie Otsuka, and she has drawn from their experience to write a powerful first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine.

The book opens on a family living in Berkeley, California, as they prepare to leave home for a prison camp in Utah. The first chapter, the preparation, is told from the perspective of the mother, who is never named. The second chapter, the journey, is seen through the eyes of the eleven-year-old daughter. The third and fourth chapter chronicles the family's time at the camp and their ultimate return home. It is told from the vantage point of the eight-year-old son or bother.

The general tone of the body of the book is one of sad resignation. The focus is on the common, the everyday. The story is told by showing, through straightforward description of inanimate objects, nature, and the weather. Only once is there a look heavenward by way of a brief plea to the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. The son, passing a soldier on guard, quietly whispers the name of the Holy
God Incarnate three times, hoping, one would imagine, for some sort of divine intervention. The Supreme Being elects not to respond.

The final brief chapter, unfortunately, is out of character with the rest of the book. It comes across almost as a political diatribe. Ostensibly, it is a statement by the father, who has been imprisoned separately from the family in the Southwest. While his hostile feelings are certainly justifiable, his words read as a stereotypical rant against racism. Their predictability lessens their power.

The description of preparations for the journey is an example of the book's more pointed directness. We are watching the mother:

"Tomorrow she and the children would be leaving. She did not know where they were going or how long they would be gone or who would be living in their house while they were away. She only knew that tomorrow they had to go.

There were things they could take with them: bedding and linen, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, cups, clothes…. Pets were not allowed. That was what the sign had said.

It was late April. It was the fourth week of the fifth month of the war and the woman who did not always follow the rules, followed the rules. She gave the cat to the Greers next door. She caught the chicken that had been running wild in the yard since the fall and snapped its neck beneath the handle of a broomstick. She plucked out the feathers and set the carcass into a pan of cold water in the sink."

And, as we watch, the mother takes a shovel and hits and kills the family dog, simply called White Dog, and then proceeds to dig a hole and bury it. She next releases the family parrot from its cage and pushes it out the kitchen window.

The arrival of the family to the desert camp is equally bleak. They have traveled by train most of the journey and then have been taken the last few miles to the camp by bus. The "girl" is the nameless eleven-year-old.

"The girl looked out the window and saw hundreds of tar-paper barracks sitting beneath the hot sun. She saw telephone poles and barbed-wire fences. She saw soldiers. And everything she saw she saw through a cloud of fine white dust that had once been the bed of an ancient lake…

They had been assigned to a room in a barrack not far from the fence. The boy. The girl. Their mother. Inside there were three iron cots and a potbellied stove and a single bare bulb that hung down from the ceiling. A table made out of cratewood…. There was no running water and the toilets were a half a block away."

Here they will spend three years and five months as potential enemies of the state. Their internment is presented with the stark black-and-white grayness of the documentary photography of the 1930s or 1940s. An underlying current of injustice is felt, but this has the sense of Greek tragedy, as if circumstances such as these were inevitable, simply an unavoidable part of life.

"I thought of the book as a story about the characters first, always, and not really a story about Japanese-Americans during World War II," author Otsuka is quoted in an interview. She wanted, she said, to communicate the emotions associated with internment, emotions that might touch anyone. And, she does that quite remarkably, in a way designed to make the reader feel the reality of confinement as well as better understand a very unfortunate period of American history.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 45 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from When the Emperor Was Divine at MostlyFiction.com

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About the Author:

Julie OtsukaJulie Otsuka was born in Palo Alto and raised in California. She is a graduate of Yale University and received her M.F.A. from Columbia. She originally pursued painting for a careerbut turned to fiction when she was 30. One of her short stories was published in the Scribner's "Best of the Fiction Workshops" anthology 1998, edited by Carol Shields.

She lives in New York City.

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