When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka

January 29, 2013 at 1:06 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction)

764073  I was immensely moved by this novel. Its slenderness belies its power.

In When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka tells the story of the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War by relating the experience of a single family consisting of two parents, an eleven-year-old daughter, and an eight-year-old son. The place is Berkeley, California; the year is 1942.  As the novel opens, the father has already been arrested and imprisoned in New Mexico. The authorities had hustled him out of the house while he was hatless and still in his dressing gown and slippers. It is an image indelibly stamped in the minds of his wife and children. For the son in particular, it is a mortifying memory of the father he adores.

The mother barely has time to pack before she and her children board the train. Their destination: a prison-like facility in the bleak Utah desert. Once resettled there, their existence is drab and circumscribed; one day is very much like the next.  There is no variety and no beauty, with the exception of the wild horses occasionally glimpsed beyond the confines of the camp:

She pulled back the shade and looked out into the black Nevada night and saw a herd of wild mustangs galloping across the desert. The sky was lit up by the moon and the dark bodies of the horses were drifting and turning in the moonlight and wherever they went they left behind great billowing clouds of dust as proof of their passage.

Yet before long, those same horses provide a fresh source of grief.

The point of view from which this story is told shifts from chapter to chapter, as the narration shifts from one family member to another. The boy’s voice is especially poignant, as he struggles to understand what has befallen his formerly happy family, and why. He wants only a return to their former life. He begins to plan for that eventuality, and when the war is finally over and they are allowed to return home, expectations soar:

Nothing’s changed, we said to ourselves. The war had been an interruption, nothing more. We would pick up our lives where we had left off and go on. We would go back to school again. We would study hard, every day, to make up for lost time. We would seek out our old classmates….We would join their clubs, after school, if they let us. We would listen to their music. We would dress just like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called out to us on the street by our real names we would turn away and pretend not to know her. We would never be mistaken for the enemy again!

Surely one of the most hateful aspects of prejudice is the way in which its victims internalize the opprobrium of other people. The unreasoning animus of others is transformed into a denigration of one’s own self. (This process is vividly bodied forth in William Blake’s poem “The Little Black Boy.”)

A few pages later:

We would accept all invitations. Go everywhere. Do everything, to make up for all the years we had missed while we were away. Yes, the world would be ours once again: warm days, blue skies, the endless green lawns,cold frosted glasses of pink lemonade, bicycles skidding across the gravel, little white dog on long leashes with their noses pressed hard to the ground, the street lamps coming on at dusk, the distant clang of the trolley cars, small voices crying out No, I won’t, the sound of screen doors slamming, the quick patter of footsteps running across driveways, mothers with wet hands–Mrs. Myer, Mrs. Woodruff, Mrs. Thomas Hale Cavanaugh–stomping out onto front porches shouting, Just wait till your father gets home!

The very next line tells us what we already suspect: “But of course it did not happen like that.” In fact, everything has changed, and changed irrevocably.

Julie Otsuka’s writing is elegant and full of poetry; it reminded me of a pointillist painting in its restraint and precision.And just below the surface there runs a current of barely restrained rage. That rage does not break through until the novel nears its end. Some reviewers have called the concluding chapter a mistake. I did not feel that way. By that time, I was ready for an anguished outburst. To me, it seemed a fitting way in which to end this sad and terrible tale.

Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka


Wikipedia has a comprehensive entry on the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during the Second World War. Some of the visuals featured are shocking – at least, to me they are. It was a shameful thing that was done to innocent people.

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

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