A Brief Review of Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine

When the Emperor Was Divine cover image

This is one of those “quietly good” books I keep meaning to read more of. Though only 144 pages long, it tells a complex story from five distinct points of view: one chapter each from the third-person perspective of a mother, her daughter, and her son; an odd first-person plural chapter told by the combined consciousness of the two children, and a very short final chapter in the first-person voice of the children’s father. This family is removed from their home in Berkeley during the Japanese internment. The children’s father – we learn slowly – was removed from his home on the evening of the Pearl Harbor attack, incarcerated first in Montana, then in Texas, and then in New Mexico. He remains in prison until after the war ends. His wife and children are removed from their home several weeks later and sent first to live in horse stables at the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, CA (now a mall where Jill and I used to go to discount double features for – what was it? – $5? Maybe less?) and then to Delta, Utah, where they lived out the war in a tiny cell.

What makes this book distinctive is its defiant refusal to explain anything – a wise yet sad strategy, I suppose, in a book about an episode in history that defies explanation. This book simply narrates. It’s like an exercise in simple narration from a Creative Writing I class – but an exercise done very, very well by a gifted writer. We’re never told outright that the family is Japanese. In the opening chapter, which opens at the moment the children’s mother reads a notice about “Evacuation Order #19” and immediately turns around and methodically packs her possessions and arranges to be at the train station at the required time, we rarely enter the protagonist’s head. Even when she starts to purchase a hammer, changes her mind, then goes home and matter-of-factly kills the family dog with a shovel, all we see is her determination – her actions, not her thoughts. The book is full of moments like this: when the 11 year-old daughter meets a man on the train and tries to lure him toward her mother (“Isn’t she beautiful?”) only to quickly retreat. When the son captures a turtle and keeps in in a box, listening all night long to the sound of its claws clicking against the box. When the family comes home and settles automatically to sleep on the living room floor as if they were still in their cell in Utah. When the father comes home. Holy crap, when the father comes home.

As quietly good as this novel is, I am actually thinking of teaching it to my eighth graders this coming year. Eighth graders and quietly good novels don’t always mix well, but I think this novel is emotionally resonant enough that it will win the students over, and the fact that much of the novel is told by youthful narrators is a plus as well. Most importantly, this book is an excellent tool with which to teach students to keep track of details and use them to make inferences. Like many quietly good novels, book is like a game of Taboo. Certain themes are present – the cruelty of authority, discrimination and injustice, the individual vs. society, quiet endurance as a central facet of the human condition – but they are never addressed outright. Like The Diary of Anne Frank, this book is also about the fact that life – especially the interior development of children and adolescents – keeps rolling right on ahead even under terrible conditions. I recommend this book to a wide variety of readers.

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This entry was posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Julie Otsuka, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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