At the One Book, One Community program at the American Library Association Conference in Chicago this summer, I was given a bag of books, including When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. During the program, a representative from Random House Books promised us that this would be a good book for community discussions; it had already been popular in the Seattle Reads program. Now that I have finally gotten around to reading it, I agree.
When the Emperor Was Divine has a lot going for it as a community reading choice. It is a short, well written book about the experiences of a Japanese-American family that is divided by federal security officials and sent to internments camps during World War II. The father is carried off in the night without even being allowed to dress; the son and the daughter both dream later of their father returning to them still wearing only a robe and slippers. The children and their mother remain in Berkeley for several months, becoming poorer and more isolated, until they too are sent to a series of camps, mostly in forbidding locations; they suffer form heat, cold, saline dust and boredom. Most readers will sympathize with the family, whose habits and aspirations are so much like their own.
Though the setting of When the Emperor Was Divine is the 1940s, the book is timely: we still have the fear of foreign people leading to angry words being said and rocks being thrown through windows. We may someday have books like this one about the families of American Muslims who were unaccountedly held without ever being charged with crimes after September 2001. When we do, we should discuss them, too.