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on October 19, 2003
"When the Emperor Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka tells the story of an anonymous family who suffers during the time of the internment of Japanese ¨C American citizens during World War II. Right after the attack on Peal Harbor, evacuation orders was posted everywhere stating that whoever of Japanese background was supposed to move out of town. One evening, in the middle of the night, the father of the family was taken away from the FBI for questioning. The mother after seeing the evacuation poster decided to go to that internment with her son and daughter. It was a long and miserable train ride. They weren't used to the environment. They were surrounded by wired fences, wooden towers and guards. The two kids had nothing to do. The weather is always terrible. They had to go through harsh seasons in the desert. The environment started to drive them insane. The mother had no strength for anything, she didn't want to eat and slept all the time. After the war, they were sent home. Their home was vandalized. They had returned to their normal lifestyle. Except that there was still a Japanese hatred going on. For example, the boy's and the girl's friends whom they used to be very close were trying to avoid them or even discriminate them. At the end of the book, their father was sent back home. Their lives weren't really the same anymore. The father changed so much. His physical and mental appearances were not the same as before. He turned into a sorrow and a lost person not knowing what to do. The mother works will he stays at home and wonders. Their lives have been affected and have been changed by the prejudice and war.
I really liked this book because the author, Julie Otsuka, gave us the reader a very vivid portrait of the fears, confusion for the family in the internment camps. This book gives us another point of view not from an American but from Japanese. It is written in a melancholic vocabulary. Throughout the book, the tone of this book is somewhat sad. It is showed by the descriptions of the nature and weather. But there is only one passage of the book where there is a bright happiness. It is one of the boy¡¯s dream where there is ¡°a beautiful wooden door the size of a pillow. Behind it is a second door, and behind that is a picture of the emperor that no one is allowed to see because the emperor is holy and divine ¨C a god.¡± I have learned a lot from this book. How the internment prisoners were treated and how there life had affected their lives.
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on November 3, 2002
When the Emperor Was Divine will definitely be one of my top ten reads for the year 2002. The book written by Julie Otsuka engaged me from the first page and left me wishing for more when the book ended.
The book is divided into five chapters, each one told by a different Japanese - American family member at the beginning of America's entry into WWII. Each of these voices, from the youngest family member to the oldest, resonates with the sounds of isolation and despair. From the earliest days of the posters summoning Japanese - Americans to the return of this family to their homes, readers are held captive by this book. All too soon we learn how dramatically life changed for these United States citizens who in most cases were interned for no other reason than they were Japanese and therefore thought to be the enemy. While the woman's husband and her children's father is detained under suspicion in a prison, she relates the first story of coming upon the notice of the camps and then packing up her house for departure. The daughter relates the train trip to an unknown destination while the son tells us what their lives were like when they lived among others in the camp. Then the mother's voice is heard once again as the war ends and they are allowed to return home. But they return home to find that life as they once knew it may never be the same. Their house has been looted and when the husband and father returns home he is a changed man. It is this last chapter, the voice of the father, which is so haunting and remains with me still. As I read the words more than once, I couldn't help but see Edward Munch's painting, Scream, before my eyes or think about the emotional intensity in Alan Ginsberg's poem, Howl.
In this rather short title, Ms. Otsuka presents us with a magnificent debut novel. We come to feel for her characters fate as the book begins rather quietly and then reaches a resounding crescendo by the end. This is a wonderful reading experience by an author who I will surely read in the future.
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Story Description:

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|October 14, 2003|Trade Paperback|ISBN 978-0-385-7281-3

The debut novel from the PEN/Faulkner Award Winning Author of The Buddha in the Attic

On a sunny day in Berkeley, California, in 1942, a woman sees a sign in a post office window, returns to her home, and matter-of-factly begins to pack her family's possessions. Like thousands of other Japanese-Americans they have been reclassified, virtually overnight, as enemy aliens and are about to be uprooted from their homes and sent to a dusty internment camp in the Utah desert.

In this lean and devastatingly evocative first novel, Julie Otsuka tells their story from five flawlessly realized points of view and conveys the exact emotional texture of their experience: the thick-walled barracks and barbed-wire fences, the omnipresent fear and loneliness, the unheralded feats of heroism. When the Emperor Was Divine is a work of enormous power that makes a shameful episode of our history as immediate as today's headlines.

My Review:

Overnight signs appeared on trees, billboards, bus stop benches, and store windows in Berkeley, California, in 1942 ordering Japanese Americans to a dusty internment camp in the Utah desert. They had been "reclassified" as enemy aliens. This novel follows one family's story; Mom, Dad, and two young children, a girl and a boy.

The father had been taken a few months prior by the FBI in the middle of the night in his bathrobe and slippers and imprisoned leaving Mom and the children alone to face the internment camp.

Everyone was given an identification number to pin on their shirt and boarded a bus that would take them to a train. The train was slow moving and old and hadn't been used in years. Broken gas lamps hung from the walls and the train was fuelled by a coal burning broiler. Some of the passengers were sick from the uneven rocking of the train cars. The compartments were crowded and smelled of puke and sweat making the nausea people felt even worse.

The train finally stopped in Delta, Utah where the people were led off the train by armed soldiers and led onto a bus. The bus drove slowly until it reached Topaz where the passengers saw hundreds of tar-paper barracks sitting beneath the hot blazing sun. They saw nothing but telephone poles and barbed wire fencing. As they stepped off the bus they were assaulted by clouds of fine white dust that choked them, which had once been the bed of an ancient salt lake. The white glare of the desert was blinding.

Each new day brought the smells of food: catfish, horsemeat, beans, Vienna sausage. Inside the barracks there were iron cots, a potbellied stove and a single bare bulb that hung down from the ceiling. There was a table made out of crate wood, an old Zenith radio and no running water and the toilets were half a block away.

In early autumn farm recruiters arrived to sign up new workers, and the War Relocation Authority allowed many of the young men and women to go out and help harvest the crops. Some went to Idaho to top sugar beets, some went to Wyoming to pick potatoes, some went to Tent City in Provo to pick peaches and pears. Some of the people returned wearing brand new Florsheim shoes while others came back with the same shoes saying they were shot at and spat on and would never go back. They reported that there were signs posted all over the town that read: NO JAPS ALLOWED.

Every week there were new rumors in the camp. They heard that men and women would be put in separate camps; they would be sterilized; they would be stripped of citizenship; they'd be taken out on the high seas and shot; they would be taken to a desert island and left alone to die; they would all be deported to Japan; and on and on the rumors went. The people took these assaults on their mental and emotional health in stride.

In mid-October a school was opened in the barracks for the children. Each morning they had to sing: "Oh, beautiful for spacious skies" and "My country `tis of thee."

After 3 years and 5 months the war was over and they were finally home! The house had changed; paint was peeling from the walls, it smelled, the window frames were black with dry rot and their furniture was gone, probably stolen. Although many people had lived in their house during their time away, they had not received one single cheque from the lawyer who promised to rent their home for them. It was a difficult readjustment for them to suddenly just pick up their lives where they left off and try to continue on and reintegrate.

When their father finally returned home after more than 4 years he looked much, much older than his age of 56. His face was lined with wrinkles, his suit was faded and worn, his head was bare, he moved very slowly and carefully using a cane. Their father never spoke about his years in prison and never said what they eventually accused him of - sabotage? Selling secrets to the enemy? Was he innocent? He was a much changed man who was suspicious of everyone, even the paperboy. He never returned to work. The company he had worked for before he left had been liquidated and nobody else would hire him: "he was an old man, his health was not good, he had just come back from a camp for dangerous enemy aliens."

At 144 pages this was an interesting and quick read and gives a very good picture of a rather embarrassing part of American history.
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on May 1, 2003
The book offers nothing much other than bits of historical information. The language is a little too plain, incapable of invoking any feeling from readers, no any click, no any spark. And the way the characters are addressed "the woman", "the boy", "the girl"... never feel good about that way...
The execution of dog at the beginning is indeed disturbing, unnecessarily odd.
Also, not sure what Emperor here means. If it means the Emperor in Japan during II world war, then it's never Divine. Just look at what that Emperor had done to people in Asia during II world war, how the people there were slaughtered, women were forced to be military prostitutes, etc., or even the suffering of this Japanese American family was somewhat contributed by that Emperor... So mention of that Emperor or any similar things or sayings for that concept certainly make it much harder for the book to collect sympathy from the readers, not even mention the plain language, choppy flow of the book... just not much feeling registered with the book.
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on January 12, 2004
Life in balmy Berkeley, California for the Mother & her family in 1942 was charmed. Then one dreadful winter morning the FBI took her husband away still in his slippers & robe, their telephone line was cut & their bank account frozen.
Then the notices appear telling the Mother what she must do & where she must take her children. Along with thousands of strangers, they must journey by train into the middle of nowhere to a barbed wire internment camp to live through blazing summers & freezing winters with nothing to do in uninsulated, barren barracks.
In a handful of flawless chapters, Julie Otsuka has drawn the mother, the daughter, the son & finally the father as they suffer & survive.
Exquisite, infuriating, heartwrenching & unsentimental, WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE is an astonishingly moving testament to both the dreadful deeds a society can condone, & the impeccable dignity of the truly innocent.
The parallels between what happened to the Jews, Gypsies & other "undesirables" in Nazi Germany & what is happening today to American Muslims makes WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE a profound read.
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on March 4, 2004
The imprisonment of American citizens of Japanese descent, post Pearl Harbor, remains one of those open, gaping wounds of despicable behavior in our country's history. Most of the historical tomes and novels of WWII fail to address the country's overreaction to the Japanese Empire's aggression and terrorism. And, indeed, our government's "protection" of these citizens may have saved some of the Japanese populace from civilian attacks. Still, the actions of the government, and the silent response of the American people closely parallel the rise of McCarthyism in the next decade, and also harken some of the less-publicized aspects of today's Patriot Act.
Otsuka has chosen a more delicate approach to her tale than that of nonfiction writiers. "When the Emperor Was Divine" tells its story from the viewpoints of a family of four, torn apart by Evacuation Order #19. A young Japanes mother in Berkeley, left alone with an 11 year-old girl and an 8 year-old son begins to pack and to close her house as soon as she sees the order posted. Saddest of her tasks is how she must deal with the family's pets, all the while maintaining an air of normalcy for her children that masks her fear.
The children's father has been spirited away by the FBI in his bathrobe and slippers in the middle of the night, questioned endlessly, and imprisoned in Texas.
Otsuka's tale focuses on the journey of the mother and the children; an intermediate holding facility at the Tanforan race track in California is couched in memory as the family is transported by train to the deserts of Utah.
In stark passages - poetry in the form of prose, Otsuka conveys the pain and hopelessness of the three and a half years the family spends imprisoned. From the third person she writes primarily from the viewpoint of each child as the mother retreats into herself. Long days without hope mingle with cruel weather conditions in the desert...
" Summer was a long hot dream. Every morning, as soon as the sun rose, the temperature began to soar. By noon the floors were sagging. The sky was bleached white from the heat and the wind was hot and dry. Yellow dust devils whirled across the sand. The black roofs baked in the sun. The air shimmered..."
Their days are punctuated with memories of the father, small incidents of camp life, endless waiting for the war to be over, with cold and shortages, and with the endless alkaline wind and dust of their surroundings. Desolate in the summer, frigid in the winter, it seems that the desert mirror their souls as their hope for the future dies.
Otsuka uses the writer's convention of never naming her protagonists ("the girl", "the boy", "the mother", "his father"). In using this language she is able to convey the dehumanization effort they have undergone in a way that mere words cannot usually describe.
It is with a sense of wonder and letdown that the reader observes their return to Berkeley, their reunification with the father, and the semblance of life that remains to them after America has stolen their souls.
Otsuka, in her first novel, astonishes you with her ability to capture not only the hearts and minds of her characters, but also that of her readers.
A marvelous debut that will break your heart.
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on October 19, 2002
In the last few years, I've read several good, short novels, including The Officers Ward, The Lost Garden, Ordinary Love & Good Will, Lying Awake, I Was Amelia Earhart, and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. I've grown to appreciate the range and power of this shorter form. When the Emperor Was Divine is among the best recently published short novels, and I highly recommend it to both avid and occasional readers of novels, WWII history, or Japanese-American literature.
Each of the five chapters in Julie Otsuka's debut is narrated from a different point of view so that, by the end, readers have the full story of this Japanese family as they prepare for and live through internment during WWII and then return to their home. The story remains unsentimental and unsensationalized so that we grow to understand the mother's concerns and strength as she buys twine at Lundy's hardware store, the children's fears and adjustments as they write letters that their friends do not answer, and the father's coping while separated from his family and accused of plotting against the U.S. government.
As with most history and the most powerful fiction, what is said in When the Emperor Was Divine implies what is not said. Life is indeed in the details so that we see these characters as even their neighbors cannot. Given more recent events in our world, Otsuka's short novel also forces us to consider how public policy and personal responsibility intersect, how social forces sweep individuals up and, sometimes, away.
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on December 3, 2002
I wish I could give this book a higher rating than three stars... I mean, that's not even the ladle part of The Big Dipper right?... I wish I could, but I can't. I felt as though the book was just on the edge of being better, but wasn't. It failed to "sweep me away" as it did for other reviewers here. But it is true that there is something very good here, something that makes me want to read Julie Otsuka's next book.
This story can be comfortably read in just one or two evenings. For such a compact book, the author does cover quite a bit of ground. We see how the mother prepares for the family to face their unjust fate, the father having no time to prepare at all, to the point of being taken away in his slippers and bathrobe. Then the uprooting and relocation of mother, daughter, and son... to a prison facility (let's call it what it is) in Utah, where they will spend 41 months... where they will alternate between being roasted and frozen as the seasons dictate, and are under constant guard, complete with searchlight sweeping the walls at night.
Each chapter focuses on a different perspective of what it was like to endure the undeserved shame, humiliation, and inconvenience (to put it mildly) of this post-Pearl Harbor Japanese internment camp.
There is a certain timeliness to reading Otsuka's story in the year 2002, with the term "racial profiling" not only affecting news headlines, but many people's daily lives.
In "When The Emperor Was Divine" this little family (and all Japanese people at the time) were degraded, and, in the interest of national security, were mistaken for the enemy en masse. When it was all over, the War Relocation Authority sent each person home (for some, their homes no longer existed) with train fare and $25.00 each (the same amount given to criminals when released from prison). And you only got this preferential treatment if you were willing to sign "loyalty papers"... as in, loyal to America.
The subject matter could hardly be more important, timely, and interesting.
But I found the style of the writing to be just a bit choppy. By that I mean, the fits and starts within the chapters, short scenes, times when I wondered which character was doing the thinking now etc.
Also the attention to detail seemed overdone at times (check out the girl's observations from the train on pages 26-27... I wondered "How slow is this train going anyway?") Also, the mother is watching kids play (seemingly) in the distance and she can hear their conversation... from inside the house? Bionic ears? Or really loud kids? I'm still not sure.
The final pages are the best part of the book, and the way that the family never returns to "happily ever after" days... it makes all the miscarriage of justice in the preceding pages all the more poignant.
Three stars.
O.K., so it's not a full ladle, but... it's a darn good complete handle!
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on February 11, 2003
WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE tells the gripping tale of a Japanese-American family sent away to an internment camp in 1942. Their devastation begins when the father was arrested while still in his slippers and bathrobe on the night of Pearl Harbor. Months later flyers are posted throughout Berkeley announcing the mandatory deportation of all individuals of Japanese hertitage. The mother and her two small children are sent on a long train ride and eventually settle in a camp in Utah for three years and five months.
Julie Otsuka's prose is excellent and convincing. She writes in a style that kept me fully engaged and I was anxious to find out what happened to this anonymous family. Will they ever see the father again? How will they be able to rebuild their lives when they are eventually released after the end of the war? I most enjoyed the insights of the little boy as he endured the time spent in the detention camp. His imagination and seriousness are beyond his years. Their return home was most sad.
WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE tells the story of one of the darker chapters in American history. The horrors that they have endured must have been awful. Their only crime was of being of Japanese hetitage. This book is small but don't let that fact put you off since Julie Otsuka packs a bunch in her debut novel. Simply put, this book is well worth reading.
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on September 30, 2002
The day I received this book I read the first few pages, canceled my plans for the night and allowed myself to be taken by this book without any effort. "When the Emperor Was Divine" follows a Japanese-American family in 1942 as they are taken from their California stucco house to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. Having months earlier watched their father be sent away to a camp ''for dangerous enemy aliens'', the mother, daughter and son are left to speculate their own fate. Plunged in to a world where mess halls are to be called "dining halls" evacuees are to be called "residents" and the word freedom exists only outside the barbed-wire fence, each spends their time fantasizing over the reunion with their father. Although you never learn the names of any of the main characters you learn their grief and you will value the impact of the line "now he'll always be thirsty" and how it took my breath away. Even if up until that point you are not as convinced, the last three pages alone are enough to guarantee that you will be suggesting this book as soon as you close it.
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