Saturday, January 20, 2007

When the Emperor Was Divine
by Julie Otsuka

Published in 2002. 144 pages.

This novel was chosen for Salt Lake County's inaugural "One County, One Book" program last year. I didn't read the book during the specified period (April through October), but I finally got around to it this week. From the insert placed in the front of the book:

Diversity. It is a thread that weaves its way in and out of the lives of Americans. It has created painful memories, like the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, and the joyful cultural, ethnic and religious traditions that flourish in Salt Lake County today.

Otsuka's novel depicts the internment of a woman and her two young children in Topaz, Utah, during World War II. My mother-in-law was a teen during the war, and she was interned with her parents - first in Rohwer, Arkansas, and then in Gila River, Arizona. So that I can better understand this period in history, I have been particularly interested in stories about Japanese-American internment, including Snow Falling on Cedars, The Magic of Ordinary Days, and Journey to Topaz. I am glad to have added When the Emperor Was Divine to that list.

Otsuka describes well the camp experience from the viewpoint of the three main characters. Here are two of the passages I found particulary poignant:

Mostly, though, they waited. For the mail. For the news. For the bells. For breakfast and lunch and dinner. For one day to be over and the next day to begin. [Page 54]

In the morning he woke up longing for a glass of Coke. Just one, with lots of ice, and a straw. He'd sip it slowly. He'd make it last a long long time. A day. A week. A year, even. [Page 59]

For some interesting discussion questions about When the Emperor Was Divine, click here.



  1. Want to share what you liked/disliked about this book? Join an online book discussion of When the Emperor Was Divine at

  2. Great review! This one is on my TBR.

    We have the same concept in Vancouver, called One Book, One Vancouver. I guess a lot of communities are doing that now. I thinks it's a great way to promote literacy.