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When the emperor was divine : a novel /

Otsuka's commanding debut novel paints a portrait of the Japanese internment camps unlike any previously written--a haunting evocation of a family in wartime and an unmistakably resonant lesson for our times.

Main Author: Otsuka, Julie, 1962-
Format: Book
Language: English
Published: New York : Anchor Books, 2003
Edition: 1st Anchor Books ed.
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Review by Booklist Review

A woman sees the sign on a bright day in Berkeley, California, in 1942. Otsuka, who demonstrates a breathtaking restraint and delicacy throughout this supple and devastating first novel, does not explain what the sign says, or immediately reveal the woman's Japanese heritage. The woman has a smart and nervy daughter, and a bright and imaginative son. The man of the house, a successful businessman, has already been taken away. And so Otsuka launches her exquisite psychological tale, inspired by her own family's travails, of the internment of tens of thousands of innocent Japanese Americans during World War II. By illuminating the minds of each of her magnetic, wryly humorous characters, and by focusing on such details as the torment of having to abandon pets, the emblematic loss of an earring, the magical sight of wild mustangs out a train window at night, and the harsh Utah desert in which these gentle souls are forced to live in grim exile for more than three years, Otsuka universalizes their experience of prejudice and disenfranchisement, creating a veritable poetics of stoicism. (For another evocative approach to the subject, see Marnie Mueller's Climate of the Country [1999]). --Donna Seaman

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Otsuka researched historical sources and her own grandparents' experiences as background for this spare yet poignant first novel about the ordeal of a Japanese family sent to an internment camp during World War II. Its perspective shifts among different family members as the story unfolds. We see the mother numbly pack up the family's middle-class belongings to leave behind in their Berkeley home. The dehumanizing train trip to the camp, and the bleak internment in the alkaline Nevada desert, as related by the young son and daughter, become mythic events. Their father, picked up for questioning immediately after Pearl Harbor and imprisoned throughout the war, returns a broken and bitter man. The family's humiliation continues beyond the war's end: after returning to their vandalized home, they are shunned for months by former friends and neighbors. The novel's themes of freedom and banishment are especially important as we see civil liberties threatened during the current war on terrorism. Otsuka's clear, elegant prose makes these themes accessible to a range of reading levels from young adult on. Highly recommended for all libraries.-Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A carefully researched little novel, Otsuka's first, about the US internment of Japanese citizens during WWII that's perfect down to the tiniest detail but doesn't stir the heart. Shortly after the war begins, the father of an unnamed Japanese family of four in Berkeley, California, is taken from his home-not even given time to dress-and held for questioning. His wife and two children won't see him until after war's end four years later, when he'll have been transformed into a suddenly very old man, afraid, broken, and unwilling to speak even a word about what happened to him. Meanwhile, from the spring of 1942 until the autumn after the armistice, the mother, age 42, with her son and daughter of 8 and 11, respectively, will be held in camps in high-desert Utah, treeless and windswept, where they'll live in rows of wooden barracks offering little privacy, few amenities, and causing them to suffer-the mother especially-greater and greater difficulty in hanging on to any sense of hope or normality. The characters are denied even first names, perhaps as a way of giving them universality, but the device does nothing to counteract the reader's ongoing difficulty in entering into them. Details abound-book titles, contemporary references (the Dionne quints, sugar rationing), keepsakes the children take to the camp (a watch, a blue stone), euthanizing the family dog the night before leaving for the camps-but still the narrative remains stubbornly at the surface, almost like an informational flow, causing the reader duly to acknowledge these many wrongs done to this unjustly uprooted and now appallingly deprived American family-but never finding a way to go deeper, to a place where the attention will be held rigid and the heart seized. Earnestly done, and correctly, but information trumps drama, and the heart is left out. First printing of 40,000

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.