When the Emperor was Divine follows an unnamed Japanese American family during World War II, told through perspectives of the four family members over five chapters. The first is told from the mother's perspective as the family is forced to leave their home in Berkeley, California. Chapter two is narrated by the 11-year-old daughter, and depicts the family on a train ride to the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. Their eight-year-old son describes their time at Topaz, where the family is held for three years. This chapter shows both children's development; the girl becomes a teen while the boy loses much of his innocence and childish mannerisms. The fourth chapter is told from the reminiscent "we" perspective and depicts the family's struggles upon returning home. They attempt to regain their lives before the war financially and socially. The fifth and final chapter describes the activities of the father, who was arrested by the FBI the day after Pearl Harbor and sent to a more remote and highly guarded "enemy alien" camp in New Mexico.
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