Aug 14, 2008

When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor was Divine is the story of a Japanese American family who is sent to an internment camp during WWII. The first part, set in 1942 and told from the point of view of the mother, takes place the night before they have to leave their home in California. The father, we soon learn, was arrested some time ago and is currently at a detention camp in New Mexico. The family is informed that they will not be allowed to take pets, and there is an extremely sad scene a few pages in involving their dog.

The book’s different parts are told from the point of view of a different family member, and there are temporal gaps between them. The second part shows us the very long train ride to the internment camp from the daughter’s perspective, and the third the son’s experience of the hardships of life in the Utah desert. In the fourth part, both children talk about the difficulty of fitting in once again after the end of the War. In the very short fifth part, we finally hear the voice of the father, reunited with his family after four years of forced absence.

When the Emperor was Divine is a very short book, but in a little over a hundred pages Julie Otsuka condensed the shock of being told you have to leave your home, the hardship of living in an internment camp for years, and the very slow healing process that begins once life “gets back to normal”. How can things ever get back to normal after an experience like this?

Julie Otsuka’s writing style is sparse, even subdued, yet she manages to infuse this story with such emotion. There are so many moving moments, so many moments in which what is left unsaid is fully palpable. Like this one:
She dropped down onto the cot next to his. “Talk to me,” she said. “Tell me what you did tonight.”
“I wrote Papa a postcard.”
“What else?”
“Licked a stamp.”
“Do you know what bothers me most? I can’t remember his face sometimes.”
“It was sort of round,” said the boy. Then he asked her if she wanted to listen to some music and she said yes—she always said yes—and he turned on the radio on the big band channel. They heard a trumpet and some drums and then Benny Goodman on the clarinet and Martha Tilton singing, “So many memories, sometimes I think I’ll cry...”
Also, I think that the fact that the family remains unnamed throughout the whole book works really well. First because it shows that their story is the story of thousands of other families, and secondly because it reinforces the idea that they were robbed of their identities, of their individuality, to become mere “alien enemies”, mere “Japs”.

I cannot help but compare When the Emperor was Divine to Obasan, the only other book about internment camps during WWII that I’ve ever read. At first I found myself thinking that I preferred Obasan, but the more I think about it, the more uncertain I become.The two books are actually quite different. Obasan is more detailed, and more wide thematically. But When the Emperor was Divine completely conquered me with its delicate beauty, its sad intimacy, its quiet and gentle sense of loss and its humanity. I will definitely read whatever Julie Otsuka writes next.

Thank you again for this book, Madeleine.

You can read an interview with the author here.

Other Blog Reviews:
Adventures in Reading
Maw Books
Reading Rants and Raves

(Have you reviewed it as well? Let me know and I'll add your link to this list.)


  1. Sounds sad, I worry about what happened with the dog they couldn't take. Also for the children who coudln't remember what their father looked like.

  2. I have never read any books on this subject... perhaps I ought to.

  3. Another wonderful review, Nymeth. Your review alone made the tears well up. Will definitely be getting my hands on this one.

  4. Thanks for the review! I'll check this one out. I was thinking about Obasan, too, as I read the review.

    --Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

  5. Rhinoa: It's a really sad book...and you have every reason to worry about the dog :/ But yeah, it's definitely worth reading.

    Jeane: I hadn't either until Obasan last year...and to be honest I knew very little about the subject altogether.

    Debi: Thank you. I really think you'd love this one.

    Anna: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  6. Wow, this sounds really moving and powerful! The only book I've read that deals with the treatment of the Japaneses during WWII was Snow Falling on the Cedars, but I don't think it goes into a lot of detail about the internment camps. Thanks also for the link to Obasan--I think I had just started blogging when you wrote your review so I hadn't read it before.

  7. Nice to have you back Nymeth =)
    Glad you liked the book, I also had a very sad moment when I read about the dog they couldn't take along, it was so well written, so dignifing, I will not say more...

    Have a nice end of vacation

  8. Trish: I've heard about Snow Falling on the Cedars...I must get to that one someday. Both this and Obasan are very much worth reading. I hope you enjoy them if you decide to pick them up.

    Madeleine. Thank you :) And I know...the way it was written was just perfect.


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