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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)
This exceptional first novel is about a Japanese family in Berkeley, California, during the Second World War. After the father is arrested for treason, the mother, daughter, and son are sent to an internment camp, where the girl tells her brother bedtime stories about the desert beyond the barbed-wire fence, and the boy whispers the forbidden name of the Japanese emperor when he thinks no one is listening. Otsuka skillfully dramatizes a world suddenly foreign, from the "No Japs Allowed" sign at the movie theatre to the horse meat served at dinner in the camp. The implicit questions about culpability resonate with particular power right now, but Otsuka's incantatory, unsentimental prose is the book's greatest strength. It turns our ideas of beauty on their head, as when the boy uneasily remembers a treasured glimpse of the horses he now eats: "They had long black tails and dark flowing manes and he had watched them galloping in the moonlight across the flat dusty plain and then for three nights in a row he had dreamed of them."
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. (Sept.) Forecast: Reader interest in the Japanese-American experience was proved by the success of Snow Falling on Cedars. Otsuka's pared-down narrative may have a more limited appeal, but can safely be recommended to Guterson fans. Five-city author tour. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Their middle-class, close-knit Japanese American family could have been any of the thousands uprooted from their homes in the Pacific coast and sent to internment camps in distant states during World War II "for the sake of national security" and "for their own protection." Otsuka eloquently chronicles in five chapters, one from each family member, their reactions as they are removed from their friendly neighborhoods and thrust into a strange new world where they are now the enemy. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the father, still in bathrobe and slippers, is taken away by the FBI for questioning and is not allowed to return home. Later, the mother, her eleven-year-old daughter, and her eight-year-old son are told to prepare to leave, taking with them only what they can carry. Resettled in a Utah camp, they begin to receive heavily censored letters from the father, who is now detained in New Mexico. When the war ends, they are sent home, impoverished and viewed with suspicion by their old neighbors. Resilient and resolute, the mother begins to earn a living as a maid, coping with her physically weakened, spiritually crushed husband. The family is nameless, adding to the feelings of unreality and alienation. With precise detail, succinct but sensitive prose, and great emotional restraint, Otsuka's enlightening, deeply stirring, Alex Award-winning book will affect all readers. A recent nonfiction book on this subject is Japanese American Internment During World War II by Wendy Ng (Greenwood, 2002/VOYA February 2003). VOYA Codes: 4Q 2P J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Junior High,defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2002, Random House, 144p
A compelling and heartbreaking story, this book is about the tragedy of Japanese Americans interned during WW II and, by understated implication, it is a powerful indictment of the kind of racism still practiced in this country, now more commonly directed at Middle Easterners. First, the father is taken for "routine questioning," not to be seen by his family for over four years. A few months later, mother, teen daughter, and ten-year-old son are sent to a fenced and guarded desert camp for three and half years. Haunting, evocative, brilliantly written, with multiple points of view—mother, daughter, son, daughter and son ("we"), and finally, father, none of whom is given a name—this novel merits significant attention. Note: some young readers may benefit from teacher or Web explanations of the internment camps of WW II, and the treatment of Japanese Americans before, during, and especially, after their imprisonment. 2002, Knopf, 144 pp.,
Otsuka has created an intriguing story about Japanese internment during WW II. This powerful book is characterized by sparse, contained prose detailing the lives of a Japanese American family in California. The reader never learns the names of the characters, just their roles in their family-mother, son, daughter, and later, father. As the mother walks around her neighborhood on her errands, she stops to read a notice and her demeanor changes. She begins packing, locking up some items and burying others. She gives away the cat and kills the dog prior to her children coming home from school. They take a train out to the desert and are interned in a concentration camp, all the while awaiting news from the father who was taken away one night in his bathrobe and slippers. Through the minute details of their lives and their memories of what life was like before the war, we get to know each character and their personalities. The father, reduced in most of the story to the author of an occasional postcard, finally rejoins his family as a shell of his former self, reduced to a fearful life of mere existence. The other members of the family, once returned home after the war, cannot look at their neighbors or even their home the same way. Each has invisible but lasting scars from their experience. When the Emperor Was Divine could easily be categorized as psychological fiction as well as historical fiction with its in-depth look at the minds of its characters and how each of them copes with their situation. There is no reader's guide to the book, which would have increased its appeal, as the paperback version will undoubtedly inspire book clubs to adopt it as a selection. Senior high andpublic libraries will definitely want to add this work if they don't already own the hardcover edition. KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Anchor, 144p., Ages 15 to adult.
Otsuka researched historical sources and her own grandparents' experiences as background for this spare yet poignant first novel about the ordeal of a Japanese family sent to an internment camp during World War II. Its perspective shifts among different family members as the story unfolds. We see the mother numbly pack up the family's middle-class belongings to leave behind in their Berkeley home. The dehumanizing train trip to the camp, and the bleak internment in the alkaline Nevada desert, as related by the young son and daughter, become mythic events. Their father, picked up for questioning immediately after Pearl Harbor and imprisoned throughout the war, returns a broken and bitter man. The family's humiliation continues beyond the war's end: after returning to their vandalized home, they are shunned for months by former friends and neighbors. The novel's themes of freedom and banishment are especially important as we see civil liberties threatened during the current war on terrorism. Otsuka's clear, elegant prose makes these themes accessible to a range of reading levels from young adult on. Highly recommended for all libraries.-Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Crystalline.... precise but poetic.... resonant and beautifully nuanced.... Michiko Kakutani
A carefully researched little novel, Otsuka's first, about the US internment of Japanese citizens during WWII that's perfect down to the tiniest detail but doesn't stir the heart. Shortly after the war begins, the father of an unnamed Japanese family of four in Berkeley, California, is taken from his home-not even given time to dress-and held for questioning. His wife and two children won't see him until after war's end four years later, when he'll have been transformed into a suddenly very old man, afraid, broken, and unwilling to speak even a word about what happened to him. Meanwhile, from the spring of 1942 until the autumn after the armistice, the mother, age 42, with her son and daughter of 8 and 11, respectively, will be held in camps in high-desert Utah, treeless and windswept, where they'll live in rows of wooden barracks offering little privacy, few amenities, and causing them to suffer-the mother especially-greater and greater difficulty in hanging on to any sense of hope or normality. The characters are denied even first names, perhaps as a way of giving them universality, but the device does nothing to counteract the reader's ongoing difficulty in entering into them. Details abound-book titles, contemporary references (the Dionne quints, sugar rationing), keepsakes the children take to the camp (a watch, a blue stone), euthanizing the family dog the night before leaving for the camps-but still the narrative remains stubbornly at the surface, almost like an informational flow, causing the reader duly to acknowledge these many wrongs done to this unjustly uprooted and now appallingly deprived American family-but never finding a way to go deeper, to a place where the attentionwill be held rigid and the heart seized. Earnestly done, and correctly, but information trumps drama, and the heart is left out. First printing of 40,000
“Exceptional. . . . Otsuka skillfully dramatizes a world suddenly foreign. . . . [Her] incantatory, unsentimental prose is the book’s greatest strength.” –The New Yorker
“Spare, incisive. . . . The mood of the novel tensely reflects the protagonists’ emotional state: calm surfaces above, turmoil just beneath.” –Boston Globe
“A timely examination of mass hysteria in troubled times. . . . Otsuka combines interesting facts and tragic emotions with a steady, pragmatic hand.”–The Oregonian
“Prose so cool and precise that it’s impossible not to believe what [Otsuka] tells us or to see clearly what she wants us to see. . . . A gem of a book and one of the most vivid history lessons you’ll ever learn.” –USA Today
“With a matter-of-fact brilliance, and a poise as prominent in the protagonist as it is in the writing, When the Emperor Was Divine is a novel about loyalty, about identity, and about being other in America during uncertain times.” –Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
“Shockingly brilliant. . . . it will make you gasp . . . Undoubtedly one of the most effective, memorable books to deal with the internment crisis . . . The maturity of Otsuka’s. . . prose is astonishing.” — The Bloomsbury Review
“The novel’s voice is as hushed as a whisper. . . . An exquisite debut. . . potent, spare, crystalline.” –O, The Oprah Magazine
“At once delicately poetic and unstintingly unsentimental.” St. Petersburg Times
“Heartbreaking, bracingly unsentimental. . . .rais[es] the specter of wartime injustice in bone-chilling fashion. . . . The novel’s honesty and matter-of-fact tone in the face of inconceivable injustice are the source of its power. . . . Dazzling.” –Publishers Weekly
“Otsuka . . . demonstrates a breathtaking restraint and delicacy throughout this supple and devastating first novel .” –Booklist
“Spare yet poignant. . . . clear, elegant prose.” –Library Journal
“Her voice never falters, equally adept at capturing horrific necessity and accidental beauty. Her unsung prisoners of war contend with multiple front lines, and enemies who wear the faces of neighbors and friends. It only takes a few pages to join their cause, but by the time you finish this exceptional debut, you will recognize that their struggle has always been yours.” –Colson Whitehead, author of John Henry Days
“Heartbreaking. . . . A crystalline account.” –The Seattle Post-Intelligencer