Monday, January 18, 2010

When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka

This is the last book I read in 2009. It’s the story of one family’s experience at an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.

The writing in this book is spare and elegant and the structure is somewhat formal—it made me think of Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, where minimalism and structure are as important the blossoms themselves.

The book has only six chapters. Each one describes one event in the life of this family. The first chapter describes the housewife preparing to evacuate from her home, under orders from the U. S. government. She packs up her family’s belongings, closes up the house, and prepares for departure to an unknown place, for an uncertain amount of time. Another chapter describes the woman and her children on the train to the internment camp. Subsequent chapters describe the camp and their experiences, with the final chapter describing their return home to Berkeley, California at the close of the war, and the return of the family’s father from imprisonment in Texas.

It’s a sad story of loneliness and despair, of shattered dreams and trust. Otsuka never gives her characters names, referring to them only as “the woman,” and “the boy.” This distances us from the characters, yet at the same time Otsuka excels at providing tiny intimate clues about these characters’ personalities and needs. Her simple approach belies a complex, multilayered story. I wish I could remember who recommended this to me so I could tell them how much I loved it.

This book led to an interesting conversation at a party with people who had grandparents among the German-speaking communities of southern Indiana and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Why were the German Americans not interned during the war? The blunt answer is that they didn’t look different from other European Americans, the way the Japanese Americans did; that the internment of the Japanese people was simple racism as much as fear of spies. Though one friend does remember his grandmother telling him about strong anti-German sentiment, and the abrupt closing of German-language schools in Indiana. The internment of Japanese American citizens after the invasion of Pearl Harbor is a dark spot in U.S. history. Wikipedia has a good article about it, if you need a review.

(Book 48, 2009)



Interestingly enough, 800 British Fascists were rounded up and imprisoned without trial in Britain during WWII, including Tom Mosley and his wife, Diana Mitford.

In Wisconsin and the U.S. during WWI, many Germans changed their names (as did the British royal family). Pretty much all the German language publications ended then and I think the Turners lost their place as an important German cultural institution.

Victor Berger, who published a German language newspaper in Milwaukee and advocated staying out of the war, was charged with sedition because he sent these sentiments via the mail. He could not send his paper by US mail any more, thereby ending his income. He was elected to Congress but they would not seat him. They held another election and he was elected again, even though he was in jail for his "seditious" publication.

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