When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: 2002
Pages: 144
Source: Library.

The Short Version:
The story of a Japanese-American family from California during World War II tells of thier internment from multiple viewpoints.

Why I Read It:
I read and absolutely loved Otsuka’s second book (The Buddha in the Attic) earlier this year and wanted to read her earlier work.

The Book:
Opening in Berkeley, California in 1942 the book begins from the perspective of a woman who sees the signs posted about an Evacuation Order. This is the order that authorized the relocation of persons of Japanese ancestry after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

What follows is the story of the next few years in a spare narrative from multiple viewpoints. The mother who packs up her belongings and her two children. The daughter on the train ride to the internment camp in Utah. The young son who plays and goes to school in the camp but desperately misses his father who was taken away the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor and is in a different camp in New Mexico. After the war they return to a damaged home and eventually the father returns but nothing is ever as it was.

My Thoughts:
I think if I had read this before I read The Buddha in the Attic I might have rated it higher. It is still a small but powerful book but I just feel that Otsuka’s second novel is a more powerful and superior book.

It’s a quick read but says a lot in a small number of pages. While Buddha ends with the evacuation of Japanese-Americans, this one begins with it. The family members remain unnamed and symbolic of many similar families. On one hand it works to make them an example of many and also echoes the depersonalization and dehumanization of the whole evacuation. On the other hand it keeps them at a distance from the reader and lessens what could be a stronger emotional impact.

It’s a good book about an important and unfortunate time in America’s history. While it’s similar to The Buddha in the Attic it’s also quite different. I loved Buddha, but I liked this one. Perhaps if I’d read them in the opposite order my feelings would be different.

3.5 stars Rating 3.5/5