Sunday, May 20, 2012


Story Description:

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|October 14, 2003|Trade Paperback|ISBN 978-0-385-7281-3

The debut novel from the PEN/Faulkner Award Winning Author of The Buddha in the Attic

On a sunny day in Berkeley, California, in 1942, a woman sees a sign in a post office window, returns to her home, and matter-of-factly begins to pack her family’s possessions.  Like thousands of other Japanese-Americans they have been reclassified, virtually overnight, as enemy aliens and are about to be uprooted from their homes and sent to a dusty internment camp in the Utah desert. 

In this lean and devastatingly evocative first novel, Julie Otsuka tells their story from five flawlessly realized points of view and conveys the exact emotional texture of their experience: the thick-walled barracks and barbed-wire fences, the omnipresent fear and loneliness, the unheralded feats of heroism.  When the Emperor Was Divine is a work of enormous power that makes a shameful episode of our history as immediate as today’s headlines.  

My Review: 

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 follows one family’s story; Mom, Dad, and two young children, a girl and a boy. 

The father had been taken a few months prior by the FBI in the middle of the night in his bathrobe and slippers and imprisoned leaving Mom and the children alone to face the internment camp. 

Everyone was given an identification number to pin on their shirt and boarded a bus that would take them to a train.  The train was slow moving and old and hadn’t been used in years.  Broken gas lamps hung from the walls and the train was fuelled by a coal burning broiler.  Some of the passengers were sick from the uneven rocking of the train cars.  The compartments were crowded and smelled of puke and sweat making the nausea people felt even worse. 

The train finally stopped in Delta, Utah where the people were led off the train by armed soldiers and led onto a bus.  The bus drove slowly until it reached Topaz where the passengers saw hundreds of tar-paper barracks sitting beneath the hot blazing sun.  They saw nothing but telephone poles and barbed wire fencing.  As they stepped off the bus they were assaulted by clouds of fine white dust that choked them, which had once been the bed of an ancient salt lake.  The white glare of the desert was blinding. 

Each new day brought the smells of food: catfish, horsemeat, beans, Vienna sausage.  Inside the barracks there were iron cots, a potbellied stove and a single bare bulb that hung down from the ceiling.  There was a table made out of crate wood, an old Zenith radio and no running water and the toilets were half a block away. 

In early autumn farm recruiters arrived to sign up new workers, and the War Relocation Authority allowed many of the young men and women to go out and help harvest the crops.  Some went to Idaho to top sugar beets, some went to Wyoming to pick potatoes, some went to Tent City in Provo to pick peaches and pears.  Some of the people returned wearing brand new Florsheim shoes while others came back with the same shoes saying they were shot at and spat on and would never go back.  They reported that there were signs posted all over the town that read: NO JAPS ALLOWED. 

Every week there were new rumors in the camp.  They heard that men and women would be put in separate camps; they would be sterilized; they would be stripped of citizenship; they’d be taken out on the high seas and shot; they would be taken to a desert island and left alone to die; they would all be deported to Japan; and on and on the rumors went.  The people took these assaults on their mental and emotional health in stride. 

In mid-October a school was opened in the barracks for the children.  Each morning they had to sing: “Oh, beautiful for spacious skies” and “My country ‘tis of thee.” 

After 3 years and 5 months the war was over and they were finally home!  The house had changed; paint was peeling from the walls, it smelled, the window frames were black with dry rot and their furniture was gone, probably stolen.  Although many people had lived in their house during their time away, they had not received one single cheque from the lawyer who promised to rent their home for them.  It was a difficult readjustment for them to suddenly just pick up their lives where they left off and try to continue on and reintegrate. 

When their father finally returned home after more than 4 years he looked much, much older than his age of 56.  His face was lined with wrinkles, his suit was faded and worn, his head was bare, he moved very slowly and carefully using a cane.  Their father never spoke about his years in prison and never said what they eventually accused him of – sabotage? Selling secrets to the enemy?  Was he innocent?  He was a much changed man who was suspicious of everyone, even the paperboy.  He never returned to work.  The company he had worked for before he left had been liquidated and nobody else would hire him: “he was an old man, his health was not good, he had just come back from a camp for dangerous enemy aliens.” 

At 144 pages this was an interesting and quick read and gives a very good picture of a rather embarrassing part of American history.


  1. I have been meaning to read this for a long time and now, thanks to your great review, I think it made get read very soon. Sound like a very interesting book.

  2. Alex it was a good book and I think you'd enjoy it. You might also like to know she also wrote: "The Buddha in the Attic" after this one which I've read as well and it was really, really good.

    Thanks for commenting, I appreciate it.