When the Emperor Was Divine, a novel by Julie Otsuka, was published in 2002.
It’s 1942, in Berkley, California. A woman, on her way to return an overdue library book, finds that, overnight, signs had been posted everywhere throughout the town. She walks to the hardware store and buys some packing material. She refuses the store owner’s offer of credit. She leaves the money on the counter and walks home.
She calmly gathers the types of things that the signs said her family will be able to bring with them. She packs up the rest of the household belongings and locks them in a back room. They’re not able to bring pets with them, so she kills their chicken and cooks it. She gives the family cat to neighbors. She kills their elderly dog with a shovel and buries it in the yard. Then she sits and waits for her two children to get home from school.
The daughter is ten years old. The son is seven.
The woman and her children will be leaving tomorrow. She doesn’t know where they will be taken, or how long they will be gone. They can bring only what they can carry.
It’s April. Her husband had been arrested last December. She hasn’t seen him since. He’s been able to write letters to her, but they arrive heavily censored by the War Department.
When the Emperor Was Divine is a work of historical fiction, about a time when a specific group of American citizens were imprisoned by their own government for no specific crimes. They just happened to be born into the wrong ancestry. The book is divided into five sections, following the nameless family into an internment camp in a bleak Utah desert, their years spent there, and their return to what’s left of their home. The story is told from the perspective of each family member.
It is a book of intense sadness and injustices. The FBI cuts phone lines and freezes bank accounts. Fathers are taken away from their families without any warning whatsoever. (The father was taken out of the house in his bathrobe and slippers.) Mothers try their best to make their children believe it’s all going to be OK. Children try their best to make their mothers believe it’s all going to be OK.
And yet, the story is told in amazing detail, and with beauty. It’s like poetry at times. The book sits back, tells the story, and lets the horrors speak for themselves.
I especially love this passage:
One evening, before he went to bed, he wrote his name in the dust across the top of the table. All through the night, while he slept, more dust blew through the walls.
By morning his name was gone.
Even though the subject matter is tough to take, I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. It is beautifully written.
When the Emperor Was Divine deals with some horrific subject matter, but it is rarely graphic in its details. Large parts of the book are told through children’s eyes.
- A novel set during wartime