When the Emperor Was Divine
by Julie Otsuka
A few months after her husband is arrested by the United States under suspicion of conspiracy, an anonymous woman and her two children are abruptly evacuated from their home in Berkeley, California. They are shuttled from one internment camp to the next, on midnight trains so that spectators won’t throw bricks at the windows. At one camp, accommodations are repurposed horse stables, each stall becoming a family’s room. What crime did the family commit? None, save that they were Japanese and in America during World War II.
In spare, dream-like language Julie Otsuka captures the plight of the Japanese-Americans exiled to the Utah desert. There’s a tension throughout between the book the specific details of the family’s life, and the universality their nameless voices give to the subject. They are simultaneously one family and all Japanese families affected by the government’s decision. But many of the details are so small and personalized that the family still feels real. In the first few pages, the mother makes the heart-wrenching decision to kill the family’s old dog, rather than leave it to fend for itself when they leave. She hides this secret from her family, telling the children that their dog ran off. I was horrified as I read it, even though I understood that in her circumstances it was the most merciful thing to do.
It’s a really beautiful book. The writing is simple, but lyrical and haunting. It has the same simplicity and harmony you find throughout Japanese art; wabi-sabi¸ I think it’s called? Anyway. Although brief – the novella is about 160 pages – When the Emperor Was Divine has a lot of impact, and a haunting quality that leaves it lingering long after you’ve finished the last page.
5 out of 5 stars