Wednesday, August 03, 2011

When the Emperor was Divine, by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor was Divine is a little gem of a book.  A slim 160 pages, Otsuka's debut novel tells the story of a Japanese family forced into an internment camp in 1942.  Each of the five chapters is narrated by a different member of the family-the mother, who packs away the house and their old life after the relocation order came down; the daughter, who tells of the journey on the train to the Utah desert; the son, who describes life in the camp; and the father, who was arrested and held in a separate facility for the duration of the war and returns to his family a different man.  The characters are nameless, which I assume is a purposeful attempt to portray the family as representatives of the 127,000 Japanese Americans who were "relocated" during World War II. 

Otsuka's writing is spare, but conveys such emotion.  This family lived in an America where their neighbors turned against them, or, worse, pretended they no longer existed.  Their ties to the community where they lived and worked and went to school are suddenly severed, and it is apparent that everyone was too afraid of being seen as disloyal to stand up for anyone-themselves or their neighbors.  There were two parts of the novel that stood out for me.  The first was when the mother was packing up their house in order to evacuate.  From my place in the 21st century I knew there was a good chance that no matter what she did to safeguard her family's things, they would not be there when and if she returned.  But the most painful part was when she killed the family dog, because he was old and sick and there was no one to take care of him.  The second part that struck me was the son's description of his mother's slow slide into depression and hopelessness.  They say that children are adaptable, and in fact the boy never seemed to lose hope that they wold eventually go home.  But even his youthful innocence could not spare him from watching his mother wither and lose interest in the world and what would happen to them.

Finally, after more than three years of imprisonment, the internment camp inmates were given $25, put on buses, and taken back to their hometowns.  Many had no actual homes to return to, and no family or friends to help them.  The opportunistic lawyers and businessmen who promised to collect rents from the people living in their houses or running their businesses had disappeared, along with the money they had promised to keep safe.  No on apologized, or offered any compensation for their losses-but really, how can you compensate someone for their quality of life, for the loss of feeling safe and secure in your own home?  And their neighbors, out of shame or anger, shunned them, which must have felt like a different kind of imprisonment.  Otsuka does a wonderful job bringing her readers into this shameful era of American history.

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