Summary and book reviews of When The Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When The Emperor was Divine

by Julie Otsuka

When The Emperor was Divine
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2002, 160 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2003, 160 pages

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Book Summary

This commanding debut novel paints a portrait of the Japanese internment camps unlike any we have ever seen. A haunting evocation of a family in wartime and an unmistakably resonant lesson for our times.

Julie Otsuka's commanding debut novel paints a portrait of the Japanese internment camps unlike any we have ever seen. With crystalline intensity and precision, Otsuka uses a single family to evoke the deracination—both physical and emotional—of a generation of Japanese Americans. In five chapters, each flawlessly executed from a different point of view—the mother receiving the order to evacuate; the daughter on the long train ride to the camp; the son in the desert encampment; the family's return to their home; and the bitter release of the father after more than four years in captivity—she has created a small tour de force, a novel of unrelenting economy and suppressed emotion. Spare, intimate, arrestingly understated, When the Emperor Was Divine is a haunting evocation of a family in wartime and an unmistakably resonant lesson for our times. It heralds the arrival of a singularly gifted new novelist.

EVACUATION ORDER NO. 19

The sign had appeared overnight. On billboards and trees and the backs of the bus-stop benches. It hung in the window of Woolworth's. It hung by the entrance to the YMCA. It was stapled to the door of the municipal court and nailed, at eye level, to every telephone pole along University Avenue. The woman was returning a book to the library when she saw the sign in a post office window. It was a sunny day in Berkeley in the spring of 1942 and she was wearing new glasses and could see everything clearly for the first time in weeks. She no longer had to squint but she squinted out of habit anyway. She read the sign from top to bottom and then, still squinting, she took out a pen and read the sign from top to bottom again. The print was small and dark. Some of it was tiny. She wrote down a few words on the back of a bank receipt, then turned around and went home and began to pack.

When the overdue notice from the library arrived in the mail nine days ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Julia Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine. We hope they will provide fruitful ways of thinking and talking about a book that brilliantly explores the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Julia Otsuka's quietly disturbing novel opens with a woman reading a sign in a post office window. It is Berkeley, California, the spring of 1942. Pearl Harbor has been attacked, the war is on, and though the precise message on the sign is not revealed, its impact on the woman who reads it is immediate and profound. It is, in many ways she cannot yet foresee, a sign of things to ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

New York Times - Michiko Kakutanih

Crystalline.... precise but poetic.... resonant and beautifully nuanced.

Kirkus Reviews

... 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.

Library Journal - Reba Leiding

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.

Publishers Weekly

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.

Reader Reviews

Louise J

When the Emperor Was Divine
Overnight signs appeared on trees, billboards, bus stop benches, and store windows in Berkeley, California, in 1942 ordering Japanese Americans to a dusty internment camp in the Utah desert. They had been “reclassified” as enemy aliens. This novel ...   Read More

D-Jack

ehh?
This book was a very informative read, but at points, its plot seemed to drift (from exciting to dull). There is a lot of symbolism in the story, and parts grab your attention. I found myself eager to turn the pages at points, just to see if the ...   Read More

m.yang

aww, this book was absoloutly stunning! it was a great book from the mother's epic journey to kill her pets and help her children learn of what obstacles their family had to face in the near future. with the son, who was young curious and in need ...   Read More

CathyM

Julia Otsuka does a wonderful job of describing this very difficult time in American history. The book was easily read and held my attention, in fact so much that I had a hard time putting it down. I felt the degradation, discrimination and the lack ...   Read More

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