by Julie Otsuka
"Julie Otsuka's commanding debut novel paints a portrait of the Japanese internment camps unlike any we have ever seen. With crystalline intensity and precision, Otsuka uses a single family to evoke the deracination -- both physical and emotional -- of a generation of Japanese Americans. In five chapters, each flawlessly executed from a different point of view -- the mother receiving the order to evacuate; the daughter on the long train ride to the camp; the son in the desert encampment; the family's return to their home; and the bitter release of the father after more than four years in captivity -- she has created a small tour de force, a novel of unrelenting economy and suppressed emotion. Spare, intimate, arrestingly understated, When the Emperor Was Divine is a haunting evocation of a family in wartime and an unmistakably resonant lesson for our times." (From the book jacket, Borzoi Books edition)
This was another book I stumbled across while looking for War Through The Generations Challenge books, and which I read after I had already finished the challenge. I would not gush as much as the writer of the jacket blurb did, but this was a very good little book.
Like many others who forget that WWII consisted of more than Hitler and the Holocaust, I had no knowledge of Japanese internment camps beyond the fact that they had existed, and even that was a point I had forgotten about. The prose of When the Emperor was Divine is extremely sparse. The main characters lack names. Their lives before being sent to the camp are generalized. Provided only the bare necessities, their days and weeks and months pass slowly and monotonously as they wait for the end of the war from behind a wall of wire. Even after release from the camp, they are treated with suspicion. But all of that underscores the point that Japanese Americans were fused into one concept: enemy aliens with no distinction between them. Does any of this sound familiar? It should. And it should bother you.
NOTICE: (Updated March 5, 2010)
Beginning December 19, 2009, Books 'N Border Collies will be posting but only intermittently while I pursue personal goals. I plan to share some reading I'm doing, but there will be no reviews. I will, however, be sharing my exploration of vegetarian cooking and the cookbooks and websites I use to educate myself. I hope you enjoy it!