When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002

Borrowed from my library.  I decided to read this after reading an excerpt of Otsuka’s latest novel, The Buddha in the Attic,  in Harper’s.

In five chapters, from five different points of view, Otsuka records the displacement and exile of one family and brilliantly chronicles the uprooting of an entire generation.  In February of 1942 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which authorized the removal and internment of at least 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans from the west coast to the interior of the United States.

In language that is cool and spare we learn of the experience through the eyes of the Mother, Daughter, Son and Father.  Each has their own thoughts and needs.  Each  has own way of dealing with removal, their own way of coping with loss, of remembering.

All through October the days were still warm, like summer, but at night the mercury dropped and in the morning the sagebrush was sometimes covered with frost.  Twice in one week there were dust storms.  The sky suddenly turned gray and then a hot wind came screaming across the desert, churning up everything in its path.  From inside the barracks the boy could not see the sun or the moon or even the next row of barracks on the other side of the gravel path.  All he could see was dust.  The wind rattled the windows and doors and the dust seeped in like smoke through the cracks in the roof and at night he slept with a wet handkerchief over his mouth to keep out the smell.  In the morning, when he woke, the wet handkerchief was dry and in his mouth was the gritty taste of chalk.  from page 77.

Every bit of this small novel effected me.  I got to know each of these people,  but it was the mother I felt the closest to.  I only can wish I would show her strength, her fortitude, under similar circumstances.

During the daytime she spent hours scrubbing layers of dirt off the floors.  “Who were these people?” she asked us again and again.  She dusted and swept and cooked.  She washed windows with lemon juice and vinegar and replaced broken glass panes with tin squares.  On sunny afternoons she went out into the backyard in her  work gloves and her floppy straw hat and she raked up fallen leaves into piles, which we jumped in and scattered once more to the wind.  She cleared the weeds from the overgrown pathways.  She pruned back the hedges.  She tore out the rotting trellis from the middle of the garden, which had seeded itself and gone wild.  Deep down in the underbrush she found things.  A doll’s head.  A lady’s black silk stocking.  A stone Buddha lying face down in the dirt.  “So that’s where you were.”  We lifted it for her gently, brushed off the fat belly, saw the enormous round head, up lifted, still laughing.  from page 125.

This is a brilliant and beautiful book.  I highly recommend it.


Filed under Historical Fiction, JapaneseLiteratureChallenge 5, Review

8 responses to “When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

  1. It is indeed a beautiful book. I loved it, too, and remember it quite clearly even though it’s been years since I remember it. I can still think of her buying the huge jar of Pond’s cold cream, and having to kill their dog; quite disparate things in one way, but indicative of their needing to leave everything behind in another. So sorrowful, so beautifully told. I’d like to read more works by this author.

  2. I thought this one was incredibly powerful. It’s very spare, but deep.

  3. I ve noted this one down ,I think I d really like it great review Gavin ,all the best stu

  4. Oh, Stu, I think you would really enjoy “When the Emperor was Devine”. I have Otsuka’s newest book on hold at my library. It’s being released next week.

  5. I like this as it offers a different angle on the regular J-lit I read.

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