When the Emperor was Divine was the required reading for the college where I work and although I do think it was a good choice, I feel that there are other novels out there which tell this story better. (Such as Snow Falling on Cedars, and this story wasn’t even the main storyline in that book.)
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but this book and I did not get along. It wasn’t bad, per say, but it definitely wasn’t good. It was a very short read and I read it in three sittings on the train to and from work, but there was just something about it that I didn’t enjoy.
I’m starting to think that it might be related to the fact that it was chosen as the required reading and I felt that it wasn’t very challenging. I do believe it highlight’s a portion of World War II which many people aren’t aware of, or never learned about, but the writing style and the novel were very basic. Given I didn’t attend the speaker series, this could be a total misinterpretation of the novel, but I feel that a required reading for college students should be more challenging. However, that being said there were parts of the novel that were really well done, so don’t think it was a completely horrible work.
Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine is the story of one Japanese-American family’s ordeal through the internment camps of World War II. Told from the perspective of the boy, girl and mother, the book begins the day posters appeared in towns all over the US stating that those of Japanese ancestry would be sent to camps and the story ends with the return of the the family and of their father/husband coming home.
I’m not sure what I had the most issues with about this book, but I think it might have been the narration/lack of narrator. Telling the story from everyone’s perspective without having a narrator or making the ‘third person omniscient’ narrator less noticeable was a major detraction.
However, there were beautiful passages in the book and, if you know me you know I love a great setting which acts as a major character in the novel. Otsuka’s descriptions of the dessert where the family’s internment occurred were beautiful and haunting in their sparseness:
“Summer was a long hot dream. Every morning, as soon as the sun rose, the temperature began to soar. By noon the floors were sagging. The sky was bleached white from the heat and the wind was hot and dry. Yellow dust devils whirled across the sand. The black roofs baked in the sun. The air shimmered.” (103)
And it wasn’t just this passage, the descriptions of the California town and the train journey and of the weather were spectacular.
Recommendation: Pass. There are better books out there that tell this story. The beauty in some of the descriptions is not enough compensation for the novel’s simplicity in my opinion.
Opening Line: “The sign had appeared overnight.”
Closing Line: “Now can I go?” (Whited out.)