When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002
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.