Gateway Gazette

From My Bookshelf: Featuring Julie Otsuka and Kristina McMorris

 

By Lynn Willoughby

When the Emperor Was Divine ~ Julie Otsuka
This debut novel is lyrical, sad, warm and left me feeling like I was living it. The ending is extremely powerful.
It is the story of one Japanese American family and their life beginning in 1942. Overnight they were reclassified as “enemy aliens”. They were soon to be uprooted from their home in Berkely, California to a hot and dusty internment camp in the Utah desert.
The story is told from various points of view – the mother once she gets the order to evacuate, the daughter and how she cares for her brother on the long train ride and in the camp, the son and his life for the three and a half years he was in the camp, and their father ‘s letters from Texas where he is imprisoned.
The story seems simple, but in fact is enormously hard hitting. “Otsuka…demonstrates a breathtaking restraint and a delicacy throughout this supple and devastating first novel.” (Booklist)
While life in the camp is trying it was the return home that broke my heart.  Old friends, schoolmates, neighbours all see the family as enemies.  Fatherless homes in the community will not even acknowledge their presence, stores will not sell vegetables to them. They are completely isolated. This will haunt me for a long time.
Bridge of Scarlet Leaves ~ Kristina McMorris
This is my second novel on the subject of American citizens of Japanese  heritage, in as many weeks. Their treatment during WWII was never good, but having read the two books makes for a great comparison for this review.
While I felt the language and slang used in this novel was silly and did not belong at all, there were some interesting insights and a lot of history. Maddie – the main protagonist, is on her way to studying the violin at Julliard in 1941. Then she falls in love with Lane Moritomo, her brother’s best friend. They keep their romance secret as Los Angeles citizens are not accepting of mixed relationships.
Then they elope, and it happens to be on the very day the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour.
Suddenly, not only is Maddie’s brother TJ outraged, but Lane is seen as the “enemy” in their neighbourhood.
Lane and his family are sent to an internment camp at Manzanar, near Death Valley. Behind the barbed wire, with alkaline dust constantly blowing and covering every surface, Maddie chooses to follow Lane and enters the camp voluntarily.
Eventually Lane is asked to join a rather elite group of Japanese American linguists who serve with the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), a secret US army branch perhaps best known for their employment of Native American “Code Talkers”.
This novel wanders and turns to cover too much ground. Lane ends up in the Aleutian Islands and the battle of Attu, then is sent to the Pacific. TJ, Maddie’s brother, is a POW in the Philippines. Maddie and Lane’s family are eventually relocated to work on a farm.
The author wants us to realize that the line between patriot and traito is blurred during wartime. However, the storyline weaves from Maddie, to Lane, to TJ, to Lane’s mother, to TJ’s girlfriend (or “gal” as the author insists on calling all females). And while all points of view are interesting, there was a lot of ground covered, a lot of countries involved and many lives and day to day details that were almost overwhelming.
The bigotry and hatred against the Japanese-Americans is well done and well documented. There is
considerable adventure, romance, history, suspense and music. Take your time to digest this one.
  • Letters From Home
Who Knew?
Manzanar concentration camp was approximately one square mile in area and held 10,046 detainees at its peak.

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