The story is of a family—a girl, a boy, and a mother—who, like thousands of other Japanese Americans in 1942, must pack up all their possessions and become enemy aliens in a desert internment camp. Their father, a dignified businessman, had already been sent to a different camp for "dangerous" enemies, where his letters are heavily censored.
I have read several novels about the Japanese-American experience during World War II, and this is, without a doubt, the most powerful. (My review of Sandra Dallas's Tallgrass lists several of these books.) Otsuka's prose is stunning. She has a gift of giving the reader an unusual intimacy with each character with the briefest of words. The mother, for example (and this is just one of many short passages that round out the mother):
"It was the fourth week of the fifth month of the war and the woman, who did not always follow the rules, followed the rules. She gave the cat to the Greers next door. She caught the chicken that had been running wild in the yard since the fall and snapped its neck beneath the handle of a broomstick. She plucked out the feathers and set the carcass into a pan of cold water in the sink."
Otsuka knows when to give details (the pan of cold water in the sink) and when to leave them out (she didn't give the orange-and-white striped cat named Tippy who was the girl's favorite to the nasty neighbors next door in the white house). As a voracious reader, I admire and appreciate her clean and compact writing style immensely. I don't want to read extra stuff, but I appreciate the art of poetic details that add depth and impact—and texture.
"Always, he would remember the dust. It was soft and white and chalky, like talcum powder. Only the alkaline made your skin burn. It made your nose bleed. It made your eyes sting. It took your voice away. The dust got into your shoes. Your hair. Your pants. Your mouth. Your bed. Your dreams. It seeped under the doors and around the edges of windows and through the cracks in the walls. And all day long, it seemed, his mother was always sweeping. Once in a while she would put down her broom and look at him. 'What I wouldn't give,' she'd say, 'for my Electrolux.'"
A brilliant pairing of their life back in California with their life in the desert. There is so much power in what seems to be a simple passage. This isn't a novel full of plot and action; it is a heartwrenching novel in its lyrical prose and surface-level simplicity. This is a not-so-distant part of America's past that is quietly swept away, with a line or two in history books. If you know nothing of this episode in American history, I strongly urge you to take some time reading this book and others (listed in my Tallgrass review). Also, this book is totally appropriate for high schoolers studying American History.
Other reviews of When the Emperor Was Divine:
Natasha at Maw Books here
Rebecca at Reading Rants and Raves here
(If you've reviewed this book, leave a comment and I'll link to your review!)