Sunday, July 29, 2012

When the Emperor was Divine

When The Emperor was Divine, a novel by Julie Otsuka is a powerful story of a Japanese-American family during the Second World War. It is a short book and might be a good story to use in an American history class. I have used fiction in the past (Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Edward Abbey's Monkeywrench Gang, for example) and it generally works well to encourage students to deconstruct ideas and events. The trick to make it effective is to know how representative the story is to wider experience. I have not read enough on the internment experience to know the answer to this question. For example, Otsuka's family returns to their house after the war. How often did this occur? This is an important part of her story because the author can show how different their life was after the war by contrasting their pre-war and post-war lives. Their status in the community certainly suffered from the stigma of internment. How representative is the father, who was interned the very night of the Pearl Harbor attack and does not reunite with his family until December 1945? Again, it is a crucial part of the story, and I found the last chapter "Confession" to be particularly insightful (I am still debating the meaning of the final sentence). He returns a truly broken man. In another clear indication of how internment impacted the family, the dream of a return to normalcy is crushed the minute they see "Papa" at the train station, four years after the FBI spirited him away.

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