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When the Emperor Was Divine Paperback – October 14, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

A precise, understated gem of a first novel, Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine tells one Japanese American family's story of internment in a Utah enemy alien camp during World War II. We never learn the names of the young boy and girl who were forced to leave their Berkeley home in 1942 and spend over three years in a dusty, barren desert camp with their mother. Occasional, heavily censored letters arrive from their father, who had been taken from their house in his slippers by the FBI one night and was being held in New Mexico, his fate uncertain. But even after the war, when they have been reunited and are putting their stripped, vandalized house back together, the family can never regain its pre-war happiness. Broken by circumstance and prejudice, they will continue to pay, in large and small ways, for the shape of their eyes. When the Emperor Was Divine is written in deceptively tranquil prose, a distillation of injustice, anger, and poetry; a notable debut. --Regina Marler --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

This heartbreaking, bracingly unsentimental debut describes in poetic detail the travails of a Japanese family living in an internment camp during World War II, raising the specter of wartime injustice in bone-chilling fashion. After a woman whose husband was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy sees notices posted around her neighborhood in Berkeley instructing Japanese residents to evacuate, she moves with her son and daughter to an internment camp, abruptly severing her ties with her community. The next three years are spent in filthy, cramped and impersonal lodgings as the family is shuttled from one camp to another. They return to Berkeley after the war to a home that has been ravaged by vandals; it takes time for them to adjust to life outside the camps and to come to terms with the hostility they face. When the children's father re-enters the book, he is more of a symbol than a character, reduced to a husk by interrogation and abuse. The novel never strays into melodrama-Otsuka describes the family's everyday life in Berkeley and the pitiful objects that define their world in the camp with admirable restraint and modesty. Events are viewed from numerous characters' points of view, and the different perspectives are defined by distinctive, lyrically simple observations. The novel's honesty and matter-of-fact tone in the face of inconceivable injustice are the source of its power. Anger only comes to the fore during the last segment, when the father is allowed to tell his story-but even here, Otsuka keeps rage neatly bound up, luminous beneath the dazzling surface of her novel.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (October 14, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385721811
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385721813
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (242 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #7,616 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

111 of 122 people found the following review helpful By Louis N. Gruber VINE VOICE on January 18, 2003
Format: Hardcover
When people--any people--cease to be seen as individuals, they become "them"--the faceless, nameless "enemy." In this exquisite short novel, a shameful episode of American history is re-examined--the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. It was a time when everyone of Japanese descent was somehow "them"--the enemy. And in becoming "the enemy" they lose much of what it means to be human.
The tiny family--mother, son, daughter--is devastated when their father is suddenly taken away in his robe and slippers, suspected of who knows what. A few months later they are forced to give up everything and move to a dusty prison camp somewhere in Utah.
After more than three years they return home, changed and traumatized. Eventually they are reunited with the father, but he too is changed, a broken shadow of himself.
The story is told in eloquent, simple, spare prose, in small but telling details, in the fragmented but powerful insights of the two children and their mother. It is never over-stated, never sentimental, yet it will bring you to tears.
The book concludes with a short but powerful epilogue, a fierce and powerful essay on what it means for anyone to be "them," to be "the enemy."
This is a painful book, but it is important for you to read it. I cannot recommend it too strongly. Reviewed by Louis N. Gruber.
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210 of 243 people found the following review helpful By Barbara H. Lulu on September 17, 2006
Format: Paperback
I had mixed feelings about this book before I read it. The title is NOT how most JA immigrants felt about the emperor of Japan. There was generally no love lost. Most, like my grandparents, left because of poverty, conscription, alienation, and to look for better oportunites in America, lika a lot of other immigrants. While reading the book, I give her kudos for her ability to describe events visually well. BUT...there are many problems with this book. There is this sterility in the manner in which she describes events.She can manage to paint a visually stunning picture with her words but there is no substance. Her characters seem as if she studied them from a textbook. A Nisei (second generation) young girl would NEVER talk in the manner in which she writes, to an elder!!! Its almost like she had Dakota Fanning in mind for this character. And the father character, an Issei (first generation)....Issei's used to swallow their pain. The Issei are known for their stoic strength and "gaman", quiet strength amidst adversity. I felt isulted by his mental confession in the book. I went to see the author at a local library and she did confess she NEVER interviewed ANY living internees. My god...they are dying off and she doesn't interview them? She said she wanted a more "pure" viewpoint. She said she did study books for her historical references. Indeed, there are some references in the book which I'm not quite sure if it is plagiarism, like in the description of the flies bothering her characters and then when they put up screens, it gets better. See Mine Okubo's book Citizen 13660, which Otsuka does reference. That scene is in there. I can see where the sterility feeling I got came from---if she only studied books and didn't get a feel for the emotional aspect that is buried in a lot of interness...Read more ›
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38 of 42 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 30, 2002
Format: Hardcover
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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50 of 59 people found the following review helpful By "racantwell" on April 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I plucked this book off the shelf at the library yesterday, flipped it open to see if I liked the writing style and almost forgot to pick the kids up at school half an hour later because I had completely fallen into the world of this novella and lost track of time.
When the Emperor was Divine is the literary equivallent of ikebana -- elegant in its spareness and revealing great beauty beneath the simple balance of form and substance. Author Julie Otsuka doesn't miss a step in this compelling, disturbing story of a Japanese American family torn apart, interred in separate camps; mother, daughter and son in one, father in another.
Confused, helpless, longing for each other, yearning for the comforts of home, hearth, and happier days, the family spends three and a half years waiting. Waiting for release, waiting to be reunited, waiting for a tulip to grow in an old tin can. Ms. Otsuka doesn't give us the details -- she walks us right into the bodies, hearts and minds of each of her characters and makes us live with them. And in the end of the endless waiting we return with them to the scattered remains of a life that is less than what is normal, necessary or desirable. My heart broke a hundred times in the few short hours it took to read this slim book.
It is particularly compelling to think of the men interred in Cuba right now and wonder if a future generation will tell their story as poignantly. I recommend this book for the quality of the writing and the timliness of the story.
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