When the Emperor Was Divine - Julie Otsuka, Elaina Erika Davis Assuming you have read the book description, you already know this book’s theme is the treatment of Japanese during WW2 and Japanese internment camps in the USA. It is more a study of the psychological than factual treatment of Japanese. You will not get historical facts or precise, detailed descriptions of the camps. What you will learn is how the Japanese Americans felt and how their war experiences changed them. You will feel the discrimination they experienced.

This very short novel reads as a prose poem. Each sentence has more than one meaning. The writing is very straightforward and simple, except that you know without a doubt that what is being said is more than the straight forward, the obvious.

Here is one example. In school, when the children had returned home after the war they were asked, as all kids are asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And the reply? “I’d like to be you.” So little is said, but so much is meant. The words are so simple and yet they have a huge impact.

At the beginning the writing presents the characters in a detached manner. We are not even given the names of the mother, father and two children. They are spoken of as the girl, the boy, their father, the mother. I did not like this. I even thought this was perhaps a young adult novel. Were we being spared the grisly truths? However in the book, after the war, when the family was released from the internment camp and when the father was reunited with his family, that is when all the accusations and fears were shouted out. The contrast hits the reader like a slam in the face. When they returned to their old house and their old way of life, they are confronted with rampant discrimination. In the internment camps the barbed wire fences had separated them from it. The earlier detachment and now the honest truths were slammed up against each other. The author did this through her skill of composition. The tension you feel at the end is tremendous, the reader feels it all the more since so much has been suppressed in the earlier sections.

That I give such a short novel four stars is remarkable. It says something about the writer’s skill.