The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

This first-person narrative, a coming-of-age story, is written entirely from Olivia Ann’s perspective. She serves as an honest narrator, wide-eyed and playful as an adolescent, a bit wiser but still whimsical as an adult. As the oldest child in her family, she is spunky and aggressive toward her brothers, and their image of her is often of a loud and angry person. She is vigilant and nurturing toward them even as their mother seems preoccupied. Though matter-of-fact in her description of their adventures, her curiosity and love for her brothers shine through. She is an agreeable narrator; she can laugh at herself, and she presents her world clearly, without unnecessary elaboration.

The character of Obasan dominates the early part of the book. Obasan inhibits Olivia Ann’s spontaneity, but she also fiercely protects her granddaughter from threatening outsiders. Olivia Ann calls Obasan her “tormentor” in the first sentence of the book, but it is to pages of Obasan’s diary that Olivia Ann goes for advice about sex, and it is to a shrine to Obasan that she respectfully yet fearfully serves rice cakes soaked in tea. Obasan is a powerful woman who smokes cigars, outlives three husbands, and engineers the marriage of Charlie-O to her daughter when her daughter is eight months pregnant. In spite of the fact that she is dead by page twenty-nine, she is the most vivid and energetic character in the novel, and her presence endures even after she is buried....

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Olivia Ann

Olivia Ann, the protagonist and narrator. Olivia is the oldest of four children. She tells about her cross-country adventures from the West to the South and about her teenage life in Gibson, Arkansas, where her family settles. She relates her adolescent view of her relatives and of the key events in her own life, including the death of her grandmother, her first job, and her first sexual encounter. In her episodic reminiscences, Olivia sketches out her life from the time she is twelve until she is a young adult, all the while living in a “floating world.”


Obasan, Olivia’s grandmother. Obasan is a powerful figure in Olivia’s life, both as a tormentor and as a role model. Resentful of Obasan’s domineering and abusive nature, Olivia never refers to her by the affectionate term for grandmother, “Obachan,” but always by the more formal reference “Obasan.” In contrast to the stereotype of Japanese women as obedient and demure, Obasan has had three husbands and seven lovers. She feels compelled to relate the stories of her life and loves to Olivia, who inherits her grandmother’s journals after her grandmother’s death. Olivia, who ignores Obasan’s pleas for help while she is dying, always carries the guilt with her that somehow she killed her grandmother.


Laura, Olivia’s mother. At the age of seventeen, Laura becomes pregnant with Olivia. Because...

(The entire section is 443 words.)