Adventures in Reading


When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine was the second book I’ve read for the One Book finals and it’s a superb novel. In five chapters, Otsuka explores one family’s experience with Internment. Each chapter develops one individual’s perspective: the mother preparing her family, the daughter on the train to camp, the son in the camp, the family’s return home, and the father’s eventual release as he had been picked up by the FBI separately prior to the family’s Internment.

Otsuka provides an intriguing and catchy narrative that really pulls the reader in from the start (+). It’s not exactly a traditional narrative and the family is never identified beyond their roles within the family (mother, daughter, etc.). For the most part, this provides complex identity and Everyman dynamics, but there were a few parts I found to be confusing (-). I particularly loved the chapter after the Internment as the family attempts to reestablish their lives and Otsuka establishes such a great presentation and I found it far surpassing many of the other novels I’ve read (+). In fact, quite a few of the novels discussing Internment don’t particularly detail the return trip.

My greatest concern with the novel is that as much as I enjoyed it possible discussion seems fairly limited. (–) Our One Book Project ideally is occurring over a rather lengthy period of time and where a book such as Nisei Daughter provided a plethora of conversation points from daily life, to holidays, etc. to work with, I am concerned that When the Emperor Was Divine does not provide a similar broad avenue for discussion. Otsuka has a terrific way of slipping in additional background material, but some of this information would require a pretty hefty amount of knowledge on Japan of the period. After all, I’m not sure our One Book crowd once to spend a great deal of time focusing on narrative structure.

On the practical and physical side of the book, When the Emperor Was Divine received some publicity when it was released so we would not be going with an unknown title (+), it’s available in paperback for $9.95 (+), and at 144 pages it’s by no means a lengthy or demanding read (+). Also, I love the cover (+).

While When the Emperor Was Divine is an enjoyable read I am comfortable recommending, I’m not sure if it’s the best selection for the One Book project.

Score: 3

Other opinions: Nymeth.

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