The Gods of Heavenly Punishment

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment

by Jennifer Cody Epstein


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393071573
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 03/11/2013
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of the international best-selling novel The Painter from Shanghai, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment (the 2013 Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association adult fiction honor recipient), and most recently, Wunderland. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Self, Mademoiselle, and others. Epstein earned her MFA in fiction from Columbia University and an MA in international affairs from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters.


Janice Y.K. Lee Interviews Jennifer Cody EpsteinJanice Y.K. Lee is the New York Times best-selling author of The Piano Teacher, which was also a New York Times Editor's Choice, a Richard and Judy Summer Read pick in the UK, and was published in 24 languages.Jennifer, it's so lovely to talk with you about your wonderful novel, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment. I am a big fan of The Painter from Shanghai, and it was great to delve into another world with you.
Thanks! And right back at you—as you know I was a huge fan of The Piano Teacher. It completely transported me—definitely among my favorite novels over the past few years!What is your attachment to Asia and Asian stories?
I think it stems from the fact that Asia was the first place I traveled to internationally, and subsequently was where I spent much of my twenties and early thirties.
My first experience there was as a homestay student in Kyoto during my sophomore year in college. I’d initially wanted to go to London, since I was madly in love with English literature. But my father—who had visited Japan on business—managed to convince me that I’d get much more out of living in a country and learning a language that differed so dramatically from my own. He turned out to be more right than he probably realized: the experience of living with a Japanese family—and then choosing to major in Asian studies as well as English literature—sparked a lifelong fascination with what happens when vastly different cultures meet, meld, and/or clash—whether that be in the arts (as I explored in The Painter from Shanghai) or in battle, as I contemplate in Gods.What started this book? A scene, a character, a turn of phrase?
It actually started with my husband Michael (as, somewhat embarrassingly, did my first novel!). A documentary filmmaker, he’s been working in past years on a film about the 2006 civilian massacre in the Iraqi village of Haditha. One of his interviewees brought up the Tokyo firebombing as an example of something that by today’s standards is generally considered a war crime, though its legality was far murkier at the time.
That comment made me realize how little I really knew about the bombing, even though I’d studied Japanese history in college and graduate school and had lived in Japan for five years. I started researching the event and found myself stunned. Not just by the attack’s scope (100,000 civilians killed in just a few hours; a full quarter of the city incinerated) but by what felt like an almost deafening silence about it in the years since—particularly compared to the ongoing discussions about Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. I wanted my novel to explore that vacuum—and perhaps even try to fill it somewhat.What sort of research did you do for it?
I read pretty much every book about the Pacific War, prewar and war-era Japan, and American bombers that I could get my hands on, a few of them even in Japanese (though I quickly gave up on that—I’m very rusty!). And I took some really worthwhile research trips, traveling to Tokyo to speak with historians and former soldiers there, visiting the Showa Museum and the War Damages Archives, and interviewing some extraordinary women who had survived the firebombing firsthand. In 2011 I also visited Ohio for the annual reunion of surviving Doolittle Raiders—which was truly inspiring—and toured the American Air Power Museum in Farmingdale, New York, where they were kind enough to let me climb around in an actual B-25. I came very close to taking a ride in a B-25 as well, but when the pilot called to tell me one of the 67-year-old parts was failing and had to be replaced before we went up, I kind of chickened out (!)How closely did you hew to historical realism?
As you know, it’s always a delicate balancing act between your story and history when you are writing historical fiction. My approach in both my novels has been to hew as closely to the facts as is possible in the broader historical context—working with maps, timelines, and historical detail to ensure I get the overarching elements right. When working on narrative and characters, however, my main interest becomes making sure I hew to their stories, since that, after all, is what makes for good fiction. That’s when I may tweak or merge or outright fabricate details for the sake of narrative truth. For instance, two of the voices in The Gods of Heavenly Punishment are those of Cam and Lacy Richards, a Doolittle Raider and his wife whom I created from bits and pieces of existing stories about the real Raiders and real women in America’s home front. Creating a fictional pastiche in that way gives me the literary and emotional freedom to craft a story that works within my novel’s context.
It is such an intricately woven plot. Did you have the whole structure in mind before you started writing, or was it more a voyage of discovery?
Voyage of discovery, for sure! To be honest, when I started out in 2008 I had only one character in mind. That was Yoshi, the girl at the novel’s heart, who I knew I wanted to place squarely in the middle of the firebombing and yet also somehow connect to Japan’s colonies in northern China. But as I continued my research, other characters sort of called out to me. I became intrigued by the Doolittle Raids as the precursor of the firebombings, and Cam Richards helped me tell the story. Hana Kobayashi is based on a Japanese woman I read about who was schooled in England during Japan’s internationalization “boom” and brought back to Tokyo at the height of its xenophobia. Anton Reynolds is based on real-life American architect Antonin Raymond, whom I learned about while researching the military’s initial firebombing exercises in Utah. He had built many of Tokyo’s modern buildings during the 1920s and ’30’s, but during the war he helped the government by building the Japanese-style tenement houses that the air force then used to perfect their incendiary weaponry. Billy Reynolds is based on a more vague idea I had of an American soldier who meets Yoshi during the Occupation and somehow becomes her salvation.
In each of these characters I felt like I’d found a unique window on the Pacific conflict and its aftermath. But in the beginning, at least, I had no idea how to put them together—that part took the brainstorming. How do I connect Yoshi to northern China? Well, what if her father is a carpenter who helps to build Japan’s frontier outposts there? How do I fit in this weird Anglo-Japanese character? Well, maybe she’s Yoshi’s mother . . . which means she’d have to be married to the carpenter. Where does an American architect who destroys his own buildings fit in to all this? And how do I get at the conflict and betrayal he must have felt? Well, he’s an architect—so he’d have to have builders, right? What if Yoshi’s father is his builder—and Anton falls for her beautiful Westernized mother? That’s how it all came together in the end—it was like weaving a giant literary web.Did you have a favorite character in this book? I, of course, loved Yoshi, but I felt so much sympathy for her mother, Hana, whose life was ruined before she even got a chance to live it.
Hana was probably the most intriguing character for me as well. Which is interesting, since her voice is so much more limited than those of the other characters, and so we mainly see her through other people’s eyes. In many ways, though, that was what helped in keeping her intriguing and mysterious—even for me. It also felt like an appropriately respectful approach. She is easily the most tortured soul in the novel. But in the end, her motivations, conflicts, and sorrows remain mostly private and her own.
Somewhat unexpectedly, though, I think that the Anton Reynolds character was my favorite one to write. Though I didn’t really plan it this way, his character ended up with a rather dry, self-important perspective on life—and yet in my narrative he kept on finding himself in situations where he had little or no control. Having him try to rationalize and explain his way out of various (and often amorous) predicaments provided some much-needed comic relief in what was otherwise a very intense, and often very dark, story for me.Where is your next book set? And any other details you can share?
I’ve been around the world and back in my head trying to figure that one out—from the American Midwest to New York City to Berlin. Likewise with the time period—I’ve thought ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. . . . In the end, though, I think I may go back to Asia one last time. I don’t want to label myself as a predominantly Asia-oriented writer (though it did work for Pearl Buck). But there’s something about the region and the period that continues to fascinate m—e—all the political and cultural turmoil, the rich conflict, the identity-seeking.... I don’t think I’m quite through with it yet!

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The Gods of Heavenly Punishment: A Novel 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
nfmgirl More than 1 year ago
This book follows a young Japanese girl Yoshi, and various characters that either directly or indirectly impact her life, which is shattered by the US napalm attack on Tokyo in 1945. The bombing was truly tragic and barbaric. However I do know that the Japanese government/army was out of control. They'd become greedy bullies, trying to get more and more land and resources, by any means necessary. I've read about what they did in Nanking, and it was hideous. I have loved this book from page one. I love the ease with which the author writes, making it an easy yet captivating read. And perhaps part of the reason that I love this book is that so much of it takes place in Japan-- a place that I grew up hearing about, given that my family lived there for three years before I was born. I grew up speaking common Japanese phrases and eating with chopsticks, and surrounded by Japanese decorations and dolls and books. So this book was a very comfortable fit for me. I loved so many of the characters. Yoshi was a treasure-- smart, beautiful and hopeful. Cam was a charmer. Billy Reynolds and Cam's brother Mike were all likable. There's also some difficult characters-- those who have good and bad sides to them. Hana, Kenji, Anton and his wife. This book is full of complicated characters that can't be easily characterized as "good" or "bad" or "likable"-- although some do seem to turn "bad" over time. Yoshi's mother Hana doted on her when she was a girl, thinking she was absolutely perfect. But time and perhaps mental illness began to wear her down, and Yoshi found herself alone, even when her mother was there. My final word: The author has won me over with her writing. Her description of Japan, the people and the culture is beautiful! Yoshi is a strong character, not giving in and losing herself to all that life has dealt her. A number of wonderful, positive male characters as well (sometimes books with strong female characters portray men as villains or dolts). This book brings the tragedy of the Tokyo bombing (as well as other areas of Japan) to light-- a revelation for those unfamiliar with this time period. I think this whole period in history has been downplayed in our schools, to make the US appear to be victims of the Pearl Harbor bombing without really recognizing the hideousness of our own deeds perpetrated on civilians following that event. A powerful story beautifully told.
dixated More than 1 year ago
I liked the weaving of characters through one character. The description of the bombing of Tokyo in 1942 was riveting.
JKathleen More than 1 year ago
It was an intriguing time, and though I found the jumping around of the different stories hard to follow, I enjoyed the book and learning more about this time in our history.
sneps More than 1 year ago
This is a story that will bring to light so much that as American students, we didn’t know as much detail about: the 1945 bombing in Tokyo, the Americans who were pretty much sent on suicide missions because they didn’t have enough gas fuel to bring them to safety, and the horrible camps that the surviving pilots had to endure. 1962. Having never been to Tokyo before, it was quite detailing and horrific, that it made me feel as if I was there alongside the author and her characters. What I loved most, was that in the midst of such turmoil, tragedy, and destruction, that love and hope prevails. Both sides of the war are shown: the lives of those in America (past and present day), and those in Tokyo (past and present). The story does fluctuate between past/present, lapsed years, and the lives of Americans and Japanese characters in the storylines. It is interesting to see how they all become connected and that hope is what brings people together, weaving through the lives of others. It’s a very slow book, with many characters and events, but the author does this in a way that helps the reader understand what’s going on, despite that. It’s a great read for those who love war history, historical fiction, relationships about love and resiliency, and even to just read a story of a war, with a different point of view.
vvb32 More than 1 year ago
Despite the sad topic, this story is told beautifully from different perspectives.  Not knowing much about Japan during this time period the rich details and descriptions really threw me into the time, place, event and aftermath. A few photos are included at the start of some chapters which bring a nice touch to the story. 
CharlotteLynnsReviews More than 1 year ago
This is a bonus book.   There is two stories combined in one.  The story of the Americans and the Story of the Japanese.  Some of the stories in this book are very heavy topics, infidelity, post traumatic stress, and war crimes, to name a few.  The book also is about survival and courage to live and move ahead with your lives.  World War II is one of my favorite eras to read about and this book was unlike any other I had read before.   There is a lot of history being shared throughout the pages, a lot of it I had never read of before in a World War II book. I was anxious as I read each chapter to see how the stories would weave together.  I enjoyed getting to know all the characters and loved each of their stories individually.  I kept trying to put the pieces together and just didn’t always get the clues.    The book kept me reading knowing that I had to figure it all out. Jennifer Cody Epstein is an author that I will be looking for more from.  If you enjoy World War II era books this is a unique book that I will recommend you read.
Mirella More than 1 year ago
The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is an intriguing look at war and survival, and the ability of the human spirit to endure. The main conflict in the story is the bombing of Tokyo during World War II. Yoshi is a young woman at the center of the story. Her father is a major builder in the city and her mother with a troubled past who was the granddaughter of a Samurai warrior. There are several supporting characters in the story who each add a layer of intensity to this epic tale and help to unfold the mystery within the story. Expertly researched and beautifully written, this novel sweeps a wide span to give readers an indepth look at the atrocities of war and the impact upon those who survived. There are several threads to follow, but they are expertly woven and the plot is easy to follow. This novel reaches deep into one’s soul to fill readers with a realm of emotions. It deals with issues of conscience, forgiveness, love, and endurance. A fascinating read beautifully rendered.
PatriciasWisdom More than 1 year ago
The horrendous atrocities of war and the delicate strength of the human spirit are all wrapped up in this novel about the firebombing of Tokyo during World War II. THE GODS OF HEAVENLY PUNISHMENT is a work of art and beauty and I will read it again to ease the tensions which continue to cross my mind and disrupt my awareness. “I dare you to read this and not be swept up. THE GODS OF HEAVENLY PUNISHMENT is shocking and delicate in equal measure.” Debra Dean, author, of THE MADONNAS Of LENINGRAD (on the book jacket) This is the story of Yoshi and how war and a host of people will direct her experience of war and lead to her survival. She is the daughter of a Japanese builder who has worked with an Architect to change the skyline of Tokyo (Yep! Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel is part of the story) and her mother who is the granddaughter of a Samurai Warrior who has a troubled past; she speaks many languages fluently. It is the story of the architect who builds the new vision, then works on its destruction and how he knows Yoshi. It is the story of Cam a fighter pilot who has wanted to fly an airplane his whole life; he is one of the downed pilots after an initial bombing raid. On this list of Yoshi’s journey, I must include Billy who was born in Japan and returns as an occupation soldier for the rebuilding process. I do not read the book covers or the promo pages that come with the tour book I agree to review. I find that those words often color the read for me and I think they often tell far too much of the story line and cancel my minds ability to imagine and discover. I quite often read each book twice, as I did for THE GODS OF HEAVENLY PUNISHMENT. The second read looks through eyes of what research the author acknowledges and the personal notes on hopes and expectations for the book and thanks to the editors and publishers. This novel was extensively researched and then rendered with a divine stroke of the pen to give the reader a crystal understanding faceted with elegance and grace. The book jacket uses the word meditation to describe this story telling and I would have to agree. All the shocking horror of war and that experience is right there and in one page you know it, and by the next page the reader is moving on and integrating the disgust and shock into the child’s growth and understanding. How could we ever have another war? This story does not leave the mind; it stays put. More can be found on Patricias Wisdom
sheppone More than 1 year ago
In fact, the publisher's summary is a little misleading. Epstein has crafted a novel that moves back and forth between multiple third-person narratives. Throughout, she keeps the book moving forward in time as she shifts settings, from 1935 Hamburg, New York to 1962 Los Angeles and gradually begins to intertwine her characters. I suppose the novel could be called "sweeping" moving as it does through time and back and forth across the Pacific. Curiously, I never felt like I was being swept up in a massive story; Epstein makes the novel very much the intimate stories of the people caught up in the war between Japan and the United States. Without casting judgment, Epstein uses her characters along with many real-life characters to explore the atrocities of war. Having just read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I was surprised to find myself back in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation but it also made me not ready to read about the torture of soldiers, a direction I was certain, at one point, the book was headed in. Instead, Epstein gives the reader only what is necessary at that point then moves on, only to smack me down later with the horror of the firebombing of Tokyo. The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is just the kind of historical fiction book I love - a new look at a time in history you might have thought had already been covered from every angle with an interesting blend of characters and a solid foundation in the facts.