Friday, July 4, 2008

When the Emperor Was Divine - Terri's Review

Since I embarked on Orange July two days ago, I've started on my luscious list of Orange Prize winners or listed books.

First up was When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. What an exquisite book. The story is of a Japanese American family's internment during WWII -- I loved the points of view. I was a ways into it before I realized the main characters weren't named - the author used pronouns only, "he" "she" "the girl" "the boy." You'd think this would distance the reader from the characters, but for me, it didn't at all. Later in the story, the POV changes to first person plural quite subtly, the boy and girl telling the story. Finally the father gets his say and it is quite a dramatic shift.

The story begins when the notice is posted in Berkley - all people of Japanese descent must report to a relocation center. "The woman" - the mother in the story - calmly prepares to evacuate. The children are curious but no one is angry or resentful. We learn that the father has already been removed to a camp - immediately after Pearl Harbor he was taken from their home in the middle of the night, wearing his bathrobe and slippers. One of the children is dismayed - their father never left the house without a hat.

I wanted them to be angry and resentful, not to go so willingly and quietly. I wept when the mother destroyed their Japanese belongings. They lost so much - not just material goods but their spirit, especially the father and mother. The author portrayed the family relationships beautifully, they were so dear with each other.

We follow the children and mother to a camp in the desert in Utah. It is a dull and harsh existence, and they remain there for more than three years. When they return after the war, they are able to move back into their house (many internees lost all their property), but their belongings are gone or destroyed and the house is trashed. Father eventually returns, a broken man who never regains his spirit.

So much racism is based on fear of "other." Otsuka made her characters so real and so "American" (I'm not sure how to phrase this without sounding insensitive or ethnocentric), so like their neighbors in many ways. Their rejection, the hatred toward them was so painful to me because I grew so fond of them - and because, of course, this was a monumental error on the part of the US government (relocations also happened in Canada).

We have come close to repeating this history in the US in the last seven years. We have repeated this history in other countries, imprisoning and torturing many innocent people in Guantanamo , Abu Ghraib and other undisclosed locations. There wasn't a backlash from the Japanese Americans after WWII, even though so many of their lives were destroyed. I fear that the damage being done today is exacerbating the anti-American sentiment around the world; illegal torture and imprisonment is not the answer to terrorism. It must stop and those responsible must be held accountable.

Thanks to those who encouraged me to read this lovely book.
Highly recommend. (4.5/5)

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