Thursday, June 30, 2011

When the Emperor Was Divine

It's been a while since I committed to reading something from the Read It Or Remove It Pile. There are many interesting things lurking in that stack but I have allowed myself to be seduced by the newer titles that have shown up at my house. Could this be yet another facet of my shallowness perhaps? I’m thinking yes. Oh well, back to the pile.

What I selected was When The Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. I know exactly how this book ended up in the R.I.O.R.P. It's the page count or as they say on the Penguin India site the extent. Don't you love that, the extent? The Emperor's extent is a mere 160 pages. That is short story territory for me. My interest in the subject matter, the Japanese internment during WWII was trying to overcome my skinny book allergy and it finally won.

Otsuka's novel begins with a young Japanese family in Berkley. We never learn their names. They are Father, Mother, Girl and Boy. Already they are dehumanized, they are Them and they are Anyone. Their nightmare begins late one night when Father is taken away by the FBI. Soon after that Mother sees signs posted around the neighborhoods announcing the planned relocation of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government.

The next three years brings degradation and continued separation. Father is imprisoned somewhere in New Mexico being endlessly interrogated. Occasionally the family receives letters from him but always they have been heavily censored. Mother and the children are living in filthy, overcrowded camps with no privacy. When the family is finally reunited and back in Berkley they find that their home has barely survived the war. It's been vandalized and stripped of anything of value almost to the point of disappearing completely just like the family itself

When the Emperor Was Divine is a beautiful example of how effective spare can be. In a non-sentimental and melodrama free way Julie Otsuka drives home the shameful acts perpetrated by the U.S. by exposing one family's loss of happiness, faith and security to bigotry, prejudice and unreasonable fears. Otsuka does more storytelling and expresses more humanity in this very slim novel than books that find the time to use every word in the Thesaurus….twice and I of course know because those are the books I usually read!

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