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Understated but powerful and particularly resonant today, When the Emperor Was Divine is a heartbreaking first novel, the story of a Japanese-American family all but destroyed by American prejudice and policies during World War II.
The story unfolds in the third person as four family members move through the different phases of their internment. Otsuka's language is spare, and her images are intense. The mother dispenses with the remnants of the family's life in California when they are forced out of their home. The boy recalls his father's arrest -- how he was led out of the house in a bathrobe and slippers. On a train headed for the Nevada desert, the children reflect on how their lives have changed, with their comfortable home giving way to whitewashed horse stalls, and finally to a dusty wasteland in the middle of nowhere.
Their father imprisoned in far away New Mexico, the children and their mother eke out a new existence in the "blinding white glare" of the treeless desert internment camp. Assigned to a single room in a tar-paper barracks with three iron cots, they live through brutally hot summers and bitterly cold winters as their once happy and promising lives waste away, and as they wait, patiently, for the war to end. (Fall 2002 Selection)