The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuko

In reading the two books I will discuss, the threat of censorship was with me on every page. As I read, I was thinking of historical fiction as a source of understanding and new knowledge.What we might learn from the adage…walk a mile in my shoes. Personal stories that shed light on who we were, what we’ve done, and perhaps, why we are in the state we’re in now.

What these novels had in common was that they reminded me how much we can learn from fictionalized stories set in historical fact. When I was a student, the appeal of my history classes wasn’t memorizing the chronology of events, dates, and names but the stories of people and what they experienced during those times. My English classes supported the history curriculum by requiring us to read books set in those eras.

I never thought I would live in a time when so many books would be censored for their truths or worse yet, banned altogether. The organized effort to take the truth of our past and rewrite it, or whitewash it, or be afraid of it, is growing.

Books are under a merciless attack. PEN America, a 100 year old advocacy organization, pushes back against the banning of books and the intolerance, exclusion, and censorship that is behind it. The organization tracks all book bans in libraries and classrooms across the country.

Books bans are not new. There were notable campaigns both in the McCarthy era of the 1950s as well as in the early 1980s to eliminate books, particularly those that have long fought for a place on the shelf. But the new spike is alarming. In 2021–22, there have been 2,532 instances of individual books banned in schools and libraries. Books about racism, sexuality, gender and history are targeted in both proposed or enacted legislation. This is a direct hit on substantive teaching and learning.

And if we look to the governor of Florida, who is driven by his quest for personal power, high school and college curricula are being stripped of all complexity and reflection of reality.

The two books, When The Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuko and The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris, articulate the personal within a historical event.

Little Brown, 2021

The Sweetness of Water takes place sometime between the Confederate surrender and the beginning of reconstruction in Georgia.Though the Civil War is over, the persistence of bigotry and refusal to accept change loom over this fictional town, Old Ox. George Walker and his wife, Isabelle, are an older white couple, emotionally estranged from each other. Moreover, they are paralyzed with grief over the presumed death of their soldier son, Caleb.

A sleepless George, wandering in the night in search of a mysterious beast that’s alluded him since childhood, finds two newly freed slaves, Prentiss and Landry, on his property. They plan to head north to search for their mother who was sold off during their childhood.

George asks them to stay on to help him plant a peanut crop on his barren land. He offers to pay them to subsidize their journey. With some skepticism, the brothers agree and the three men begin farming the land together. Caleb, very much alive, returns home with an ugly facial scar and stories of his time in a Union prison camp. What he doesn’t tell them is that he was beaten because he deserted his post for his wealthy boyhood friend and secret lover, August. August’s father pretty much runs the town.

Caleb discovers August is going to marry a woman his father has chosen for him. Despite his fury over August’s impending marriage, they rekindle their forbidden romance. This sets off a series of tragic events— murder, injustice, and, widespread destruction. Throughout the ensuing drama, the Walker family is able to muster unexpected courage and determination against the backdrop of one of the more difficult times in our history,

As the story moves along, what the characters have endured is not forgotten. The horror of slavery, both physical and mental, is very much alive throughout the book. What Landry and Prentiss experienced is never far from memory, yet their belief in a hopeful future drives them forward.

An example of the thoughts of the mute Landry, a harshly mistreated slave, now freedman:

He slipped off into the woods and followed alongside the road to town, veering off toward the meadowland when it suited him. There was a lightness to his step, and he made quick time. The pond was just as he’d left it—the lilies upon the water unified like a carefully drawn illustration; the water reflecting his image, made beautiful if only by the beauty that surrounded him. He loved the silence, so totally encompassing that his thoughts arrived as if he were speaking, the sentences full and alive, the sort a preacher might thunder to an audience who would respond with whoops and wild amens. Here, things were different. For the sliver of time he was allowed, the pond was his.

The only real criticism I have of the book is the lopsided characterizations in the second half. As I was reading, I was impressed by the depth of character of the main characters—George, Isabelle, Prentiss, Landry, Caleb, and Clementine. However, the townspeople were stereotyped, without nuance. This seemed off balanced given what we knew of the others.

Nathan Harris, author

This is an amazing debut novel. I believe Nathan Harris, the author, is headed for an auspicious career. The Sweetness of Water was long listed for the 2021 Booker Prize, and shortlisted for the 2022 Dylan Thomas Prize. In addition, this was a Times Best Paperback 2022, New York Times Bestseller, Oprah Book Club Pick and Barack Obama selection.

Anchor 2003

Sometimes the way a book is written is what evokes your reaction. When reading Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, it was so unusually written I had to keep stopping to reread. It might be considered a prequel to When the Emperor Was Divine.

Buddha is the story of Japanese women coming to America after WWI as picture brides. Written as a collective, the reader takes the journey with these young women and experience their hopes and what they actually are sailing toward. When the Emperor Was Divine is the continuing story of the Japanese emigration. It is World War II, the Japanese have comfortable ‘American’ lives before they are treated as the enemy and imprisoned.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the federal War Relocation Authority (WRA) was established to “take all people of Japanese descent into custody.” This translated to over 120,000 people removed from their homes and sent to one of 10 internment camps. It was falsely presumed anyone of Japanese heritage would engage in sabotage and espionage against America and ally themselves with Japan.

Emperor tells one unnamed family’s story, presumably written this way to emphasize its universality: it was everyone’s story.

Shortly after the war begins, the father of a middle class Japanese family, who owns a comfortable home in Berkeley, California, is taken from his home—not even given time to dress—and held for questioning. Sometime later, the signs go up, first limiting activity and then mandating that all Japanese pack a suitcase and arrive at the train station at a specific time.

The reader is taken on the journey with them. The unending train ride, the arrival in the middle of nowhere and the return home.

The 42 year old mother, her eleven year old daughter and eight year old son, along with more than 11,000 others, were taken to Topaz, Utah to live in a camp in the treeless, windy high desert. At the camp, they live among rows of wooden barracks with no privacy, few amenities, and great suffering. The mother especially has increasing difficulty in hoping for a return to normalcy.

We see this family through their return and in Otsuka’s continued impersonal descriptions, the horror of how people are now treating them. The concluding chapter is devoted to the father who had been held as a traitor.

Julie Otsuka, author

Julie Otsuka has a sparse original writing style that makes her storytelling unique. She writes in a lyrical rhythm that dispassionately captures the cruelty and unimaginable experience of a group of Americans imprisoned because of what they look like. Her prose is descriptive, removed, but the reader feels every aspect of what is happening.

An example:

Always he would remember the dust. It was soft and white and chalky like talcum powder.

Only the alkaline made your skin burn. It made your nose bleed. It made your eyes sting. It took your voice away. The dust got into your shoes. Your hair. Your pants. Your mouth. Your bed. Your dreams. It seeped under doors and around the edges of windows and through the cracks in the walls.

Although written twenty years ago, the book resonates once again. Since the pandemic, there is once again a rise in innocents beaten and murdered. They are demonized and at risk because of their race.

We constantly invoke we will never forget but what is it that we will remember if books of our checkered, ugly past are not read. Another slogan: knowledge is power can’t be forgotten. Along with understanding, compassion, empathy and a host of other important qualities that make us human.

Otsuka is a remarkable witness to history as is Nathan Harris. This rise in book bans to limit our knowledge is not going away. We all have to our best to fight them.

Available on this website, Amazon, Barnes&Noble and your local bookstore

Jan Marin Tramontano has given us a novel of love and disenchantment, of dashed dreams and sustained hope. Sexy, unflinching, pinpoint accurate in its portrayal of parenting, this is an exhilarating work.

James Robison, novelist, screenwriter, poet Recipient of Rosenthal, Whiting, and Pushcart Awards

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