When the Emperor was Divine & The Kitchen House
If you are heading away to the beach for March Break (or staying at home in front of the fire) I have a couple of “good reads” to recommend for relaxing but satisfying reading.
When the Emperor Was Divine is the first novel by Julie Otsuka, author of the more recent Buddha in the Attic. This is a little book, powerful in it’s simplicity. Anyone can get this one read no matter how little time you may have to read in peace.
This is the story of a family, holding on to their memories of home, of their happy affluent family. A family who had lived in the United States for 19 years, who had assimilated into the wider community, with children who did not know any Japanese. The husband, a successful business man who traveled regularly to Europe, returning home with special gifts for his wife and children, an affectionate, loving father who always had time for his family.
They worry about leaving their home behind, they are hiding things in the attic, burying the silver in the back yard, as the mother deals with the future of pets they cannot take with them. They are told to pack only what they can carry. How many children have been told the same thing when families are forced to leave their homes in times of war? The father had already been taken – they’d come for him in the night, removing him from his home wearing his slippers. His son takes his father’s shoes. They may be apart but they console themselves that they are all safe – all sleeping under the same moon.
After 3 yrs and 5 months in an internment camp in the Utah desert, the war ends and they are released. Too many years in the life of anyone, especially for the children who are now young teenagers. The American soldiers who were treated so cruelly while prisoners of war in Japan are also being released. It is understandable, to some extent, that some of their former neighbors no longer welcome the return of the family. Living in a free world will be a difficult adjustment.
This totally dynamite little book is one you will remember for a very long time.
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grisson is more substantial in size, and you will be just as engaged, but it will take a little longer to read.
This book was recommended to me by a customer last summer, and I thanked her for the suggestion. After I read The Kitchen House I passed it on to all of my staff and we have recommended it to others all year long. There are many novels dealing with the days of slavery and their aftermath, and this is one of the best.
The Kitchen House opens with the arrival home of a Sea Captain who owns a large plantation, and many slaves. He brings with him a young girl, Lavinia, orphaned on the voyage to America from Ireland. She becomes his indentured servant and serves with his slaves in the kitchen of the tobacco plantation. The Captain seems to be an honorable man, he appears to treat his slaves well and loves his wife, but there is darkness in this story. Lavinia is only seven years old when she arrives in America in 1790. She straddles two very different worlds, working in the kitchen with the slaves, with a black woman and her husband who become her “mama” and “paps”, but she is also welcomed into the Captain’s home and finds her loyalty divided.
You may find it hard to drag yourself away from this one. I’d rather travel with real books than those other unmentionable things so if you want to be sure the books you’ve got with you will satisfy, take off with The Kitchen House and When the Emperor Was Divine.