“She pulled back the shade and looked out into the black Nevada night and saw a herd of wild mustangs galloping across the desert. The sky was lit up by the moon and the dark bodies of the horses were drifting and turning in the moonlight and wherever they went they left behind great billowing clouds of dust as proof of their passage. The girl lifted the shade and pulled her brother closer to the window…”
With possible strange exceptions, everyone wants to belong, to feel part of a group. But here’s an epically destructive paradox—it seems to be human nature that we don’t properly feel like we belong unless we can point to people who don’t belong. To properly feel like part of a group, we must be aware that there are outsiders.
This psychological need is so strong that we even use our imagination to invent separate groups. An obvious and easy way to create groups is based on physical appearance. I’m a pretty girl and you’re not. I’m white and you’re not. Once we’ve placed people in another group, they are (as academics like to say) the “Other”. Since they aren’t like us, we don’t need to treat them the same.
Every one of us could this moment make a list of historic horrors based on the groups humans have created. All countries on earth—even your favorites—are guilty of abuse at some point. One of the shameful moments in American history happened in 1942, when Japanese Americans living in the west were rounded up and moved to concentration camps (called “internment” camps). The daughter of one of the internees, Julie Otsuka, has used her short novel When the Emperor Was Divine to tell a story of a small family, showing their removal to concentration camps and then their return. In some ways it seems like a simple novel.
The style of the book does not call attention to itself, but quietly narrates events with an attention to detail that is sometimes a minute description of daily life, such as the mother in their kitchen before they go: “The Radio City Symphony was performing the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Cymbals were crashing. Cannons boomed. She set the plate down in front of the boy. ‘Eat,’ she said. He reached for a slice of apple just as the audience burst into applause.”
There are few scenes of great drama in this book. Most of life does not consist of such drama, but of the little details that take us through the day, and these details are much of what Otsuka uses to tell her story. The author mostly wants to show the people in the book as human beings, to let us see their humanity. We learn that the girl “was ten years old and she knew what she liked. Boys and black licorice and Dorothy Lamour.” We learn that while in the camp the boy “lay awake in the darkness worrying about the bicycle he’d left behind, chained to the trunk of the persimmon tree. Had the tires gone flat yet?” When they first get out of the train in the desert, the mother says, “It is unbearably bright.”
There is also very little plot in this book, in contradiction to what some people insist a novel must have. The family is removed from their home, they spend time in the camps, and at last they come home. The purpose of the book is not so much to relate the broad story of American history, but rather to let us briefly feel the lives of the people who must bear up under history. We already know what happened in the United States during World War II. We read this book to see how the boy feels about horses, to learn what the emotional reactions of the family are to the father being gone.
One thing Otsuka does which indicates this is a modern novel is that the five parts of the book are all written from a different point of view: the mother, the girl, the boy, an unnamed narrator (the only section in first person, and we know it must be either the girl or boy, but don’t know which), and the father. The very end of the book, the last four pages, show anger and sarcasm, which I would have told the author to change, as they are in such contrast with the generally quiet and even lyrical tone of the rest of the book. But maybe she wanted it that way.
When the Imperor Was Divine is a tiny book, a fast read, and if you don’t want to simply connect with the characters trying to live under the fist of history, then it’s probably not for you. But if you can appreciate a lovely description of people who seem real as they are mistreated by fate, then lift the shade, lean closer to the window, and watch the horses gallop across the desert.