Monday, January 30, 2006

Mini Review: "When The Emperor Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka

This small gem of a first novel is a minimalist evocation of the disruptions caused by FDR’s ill-conceived program to inter Japanese Americans during World War II. Julie Otsuka’s prose is as subtle and as moving as a watercolor depiction of a cherry tree in bloom or a formal Japanese garden in full flower.

“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 Berkley 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.” (Page 3)

Thus, Ms. Otsuka takes the reader by the hand and leads him down a path that reveals - phrase-by-phrase and page-by-page - the quiet desperation of the lives that were torn asunder by Evacuation Order No. 19. In this era in which xenophobia continues to rear its ugly head as an all too facile way for some to clutch at straws as they look for safety in a world inhabited by snakes of many stripes, we are well served to be reminded of the cost of our short-sightedness back in the days when “the Emperor was divine.” Mirroring the experience of her protagonist, Ms. Otsuka hands the reader new glasses in the form of this crystal clear tale that enables us to “see things clearly for the first time . . .”

I invite you to look through her glasses for a new view of the world as it existed then – and as it largely remains to this day for so many.


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