It’s Monday. What Are You Reading?
Several weeks ago, I posted a book review of The Red Kimono by Jan Morrill. This book tells of a Japanese family who lived in San Francisco at the beginning of WWII, but who were forced from their home to live in an internment camp in Arkansas.
Karen, my reading buddy, gave me another book on the same topic. When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. This short novel of five chapters and 132 pages tells the story of a Japanese family destroyed by a war with which they had no part. Each member of the family tells a part of the story, picking up the story where the previous member left off.
Chapter 1. “Evacuation Order No. 19.” The narrator begins with the mother, who has no name, and tells her story in an unemotional, detached manner. It is almost as if the mother is a bystander who watches the story unravel in front of her, and the story is so painful that she cannot bear to be a part of it. She sheds no tears. She locks her feelings within and does what she must do to comply with the posted evacuation orders that have appeared around Berkeley, CA., in the spring of 1942.
She goes home and methodically dismantles her life. (Her husband, a well-to-do, well-traveled businessman, has already been arrested and taken to a military prison as a Japanese enemy alien.) She sorts and packs for the imminent forced move, puts some things aside, throws others away, and burns or destroys the treasures that formed the core of her character: family photographs, three silk kimonos, a Japanese flag, and the abacus. She dispatches the White Dog, the chicken in the yard, the family bird, and the bottle of plum wine in quick order. Tomorrow they leave for an unknown destination for an unknown amount of time, where time and days will melt together in the heat.
Chapter 2. “Train” The nameless 11-year-old girl, with something of an attitude, picks up the story and describes the train trip to the internment camp in the desert at Topaz, Utah, where the mother, the girl, and the boy, begin life in one of the hundreds of tar-paper shacks with no running water, surrounded by barbed-wire fences. In clips of daily life and flashbacks, the girl portrays the hopelessness of their situation.
Chapter 3. “When the Emperor Was Divine” In the beginning of the stay in Topaz, the eight-year-old boy thought he saw his father everywhere, but he was not to be found. The boy watches the mother despair about their living situation. At night, he dreams of the father, the Emperor, and the cute little blonde girl who lived nearby back home. The nameless boy remembers her full name: Elizabeth Morgana Roosevelt. He, perhaps, holds out the most hope for the family: at least the father can find them here in the internment camp.
Chapter 4. “In a Stranger’s Backyard.” The story moves to third-person plural point of view. “We.” The mother, the girl, the boy each receive twenty-five dollars and train fare to go home to a life very different from life before the war.
Chapter 5. “Confession” The father speaks in first person, “I,” and tells his story of pain, humiliation, and of being imprisoned for being “too short, too dark, too ugly, too proud.” He may be free now from captivity, but he is definitely not free.
The stories tell the story in this book. The mother, the girl, the boy do not tell of the emotional pain they suffer; they show it. Readers will feel the depth of their pain as they follow these four individuals through three dark years and traumatic years.
This book succinctly describes a terrible time in our American history. It is well worth reading to gain a perspective on this historical period and the innocent Japanese Americans who suffered through it.