Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review: When the Emperor was Divine

Author: Julie Otsuka
Publisher/Format: Anchor (2003), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 160 pages
Subject: life as a Japanese national during WWII
Setting: Internment camp during WW II, California, Utah
Genre: historical fiction
Source: My shelves- a Christmas gift

Julie Otsuka writes with a simple, heartbreaking prose to give us a picture of one of the less glorious moments in America's history. It shows a typical Japanese American family (mother, father, daughter, son) living in California at the outbreak of hostilities in December 1941. These are adults who have been in the country as citizens for more than 20 years, children who were born in the US. The children do not speak or understand Japanese. They have piano lessons, they have pets, they have wedding china and silver, and lace curtains.  The father works so his wife doesn't have to.

Just as the world is shattered by the attack on Pearl Harbor, so this nameless family finds its world splintered into pieces. The father is taken into custody by the FBI in the middle of the night. Shortly after that, the others are given very short notice to pack up whatever they can in one suitcase each, and report to a staging area, where they are eventually shipped to Utah to spend the war in an internment camp of tar paper shacks. The effects of this relocation of over 100,000 persons of Japanese descent are related through the eyes of the young boy (about 8-9 years old).

Using characters who remain nameless, the author enhances the depersonalizing impact this action had on those who were forced to give up their lives, possessions, and livelihoods.  The powerful storytelling enables the reader to feel the emotional, physical, and psychological results of this infamous episode in our country's history.  The significance and consequences of actions on all sides are beautifully portrayed without political comment, without assessing blame or pointing fingers.  It is a quiet, quintessentially elegant depiction of a bleak and regrettable story.

Let's hope this is not the last we hear from Ms. Otsuka.

1 comment:

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