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When the Emperor Was Divine
Cover of When the Emperor Was Divine
When the Emperor Was Divine
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Julie Otsuka’s commanding debut novel paints a portrait of the Japanese internment camps unlike any we have ever seen. With crystalline intensity and precision, Otsuka uses a single family to evoke the...
Julie Otsuka’s commanding debut novel paints a portrait of the Japanese internment camps unlike any we have ever seen. With crystalline intensity and precision, Otsuka uses a single family to evoke the...
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  • Julie Otsuka’s commanding debut novel paints a portrait of the Japanese internment camps unlike any we have ever seen. With crystalline intensity and precision, Otsuka uses a single family to evoke the deracination—both physical and emotional—of a generation of Japanese Americans. In five chapters, each flawlessly executed from a different point of view—the mother receiving the order to evacuate; the daughter on the long train ride to the camp; the son in the desert encampment; the family’s return to their home; and the bitter release of the father after more than four years in captivity—she has created a small tour de force, a novel of unrelenting economy and suppressed emotion. Spare, intimate, arrestingly understated, When the Emperor Was Divine is a haunting evocation of a family in wartime and an unmistakably resonant lesson for our times. It heralds the arrival of a singularly gifted new novelist.

 

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Excerpts-

  • From the book

    EVACUATION ORDER NO. 19
    The sign had appeared overnight. On billboards and trees and the backs of the bus-stop benches. It hung in the window of Woolworth's. It hung by the entrance to the YMCA. It was stapled to the door of the municipal court and nailed, at eye level, to every telephone pole along University Avenue. The woman was returning a book to the library when she saw the sign in a post office window. It was a sunny day in Berkeley in the spring of 1942 and she was wearing new glasses and could see everything clearly for the first time in weeks. She no longer had to squint but she squinted out of habit anyway. She read the sign from top to bottom and then, still squinting, she took out a pen and read the sign from top to bottom again. The print was small and dark. Some of it was tiny. She wrote down a few words on the back of a bank receipt, then turned around and went home and began to pack.

    When the overdue notice from the library arrived in the mail nine days later she still had not finished packing. The children had just left for school and boxes and suitcases were scattered across the floor of the house. She tossed the envelope into the nearest suitcase and walked out the door.

    Outside the sun was warm and the palm fronds were clacking idly against the side of the house. She pulled on her white silk gloves and began to walk east on Ashby. She crossed California Street and bought several bars of Lux soap and a large jar of face cream at the Rumford Pharmacy. She passed the thrift shop and the boarded-up grocery but saw no one she knew on the sidewalk. At the newsstand on the corner of Grove she bought a copy of the Berkeley Gazette. She scanned the headlines quickly. The Burma Road had been severed and one of the Dionne quintuplets--Yvonne--was still recovering from an ear operation. Sugar rationing would begin on Tuesday. She folded the paper in half but was careful not to let the ink darken her gloves.

    At Lundy's Hardware she stopped and looked at the display of victory garden shovels in the window. They were well-made shovels with sturdy metal handles and she thought, for a moment, of buying one--the price was right and she did not like to pass up a bargain. Then she remembered that she already had a shovel at home in the shed. In fact, she had two. She did not need a third. She smoothed down her dress and went into the store.

    "Nice glasses," Joe Lundy said the moment she walked through the door.

    "You think?" she asked. "I'm not used to them yet." She picked up a hammer and gripped the handle firmly. "Do you have anything bigger?" she asked. Joe Lundy said that what she had in her hand was the biggest hammer he had. She put the hammer back on the rack.

    "How's your roof holding out?" he asked her.

    "I think the shingles are rotting. It just sprung another leak."

    "It's been a wet year."

    The woman nodded. "But we've had some nice days." She walked past the venetian blinds and the black- out shades to the back of the store. She picked out two rolls of tape and a ball of twine and brought them back to the register. "Every time it rains I have to set out the bucket," she said. She put down two quarters on the counter.

    "Nothing wrong with a bucket," said Joe Lundy. He pushed the quarters back toward her across the counter but he did not look at her. "You can pay me later," he said. Then he began to wipe the side of the register with a rag. There was a dark stain there that would not go away.

    "I can pay you now," said the woman.

    "Don't worry about it," said Joe Lundy. He reached into his shirt pocket and gave her two caramel candies wrapped in gold foil. "For the children," he...

About the Author-

  • Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. She is a graduate of Yale University and received her M.F.A. from Columbia. She lives in New York City.

Reviews-

  • AudioFile Magazine This novel is a little miracle of unsentimental strength. Julie Otsuka re-creates the Japanese internment camps of WWII with the precision of a fine jeweler. Minimal, almost flawless, the story follows an American-Japanese family uprooted from their home "for the sake of national security" and sent to an internment camp in Utah. By leaving the characters nameless, Otsuka connects all who have experienced persecution to this disgraceful episode in America's past. Elaina Erika Davis performs Otsuka's understated prose with delicacy and grace. In each of four points of view, she re-creates "the city of tar-paper barracks" with its barbed-wire fences, making utterly believable the family's disbelief, disorientation, and alienation. As mother, daughter, son, and father reveal their feelings, Davis's voice speaks volumes of innocence betrayed. S.J.H. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award (c) AudioFile 2004, Portland, Maine
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from August 26, 2002
    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.

  • The New Yorker "Exceptional. . . . Otsuka skillfully dramatizes a world suddenly foreign. . . . [Her] incantatory, unsentimental prose is the book's greatest strength."
  • Boston Globe "Spare, incisive. . . . The mood of the novel tensely reflects the protagonists' emotional state: calm surfaces above, turmoil just beneath."
  • The Oregonian "A timely examination of mass hysteria in troubled times. . . . Otsuka combines interesting facts and tragic emotions with a steady, pragmatic hand."
  • USA Today "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."
  • Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges "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."
  • The Bloomsbury Review "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."
  • O, The Oprah Magazine "The novel's voice is as hushed as a whisper. . . . An exquisite debut. . . potent, spare, crystalline."
  • St. Petersburg Times "At once delicately poetic and unstintingly unsentimental."
  • Publishers Weekly "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."
  • Booklist "Otsuka . . . demonstrates a breathtaking restraint and delicacy throughout this supple and devastating first novel ."
  • Library Journal "Spare yet poignant. . . . clear, elegant prose."
  • Colson Whitehead, author of John Henry Days "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."
  • The Seattle Post-Intelligencer "Heartbreaking. . . . A crystalline account."

Title Information+

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    Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
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