Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2078
Nomura-obasan: An elderly woman in Slocan who lives with the Nakanes.
Rough Lock Bill: A gruff older bachelor who lives in Slocan.
Percy Bower: A white boy and bully who lives in Slocan.
Miyuki: A friend of Naomi.
Kenji: A friend of Naomi who inadvertently nearly causes her to drown.
Yuki and Reiko: Naomi’s schoolmates who snub her at the Slocan bathhouse.
It is 1942, and Naomi, Obasan, and Stephen, whose leg remains in a cast, travel by train from British Columbia east to Slocan, one of several ghost towns to be re-inhabited with Japanese Canadians forced to move from the protected zones of coastal Canada. A woman across the aisle leans over and tells Obasan that the young woman sitting near them has a newborn infant and no gear to care for the baby. Obasan brings the woman apples and fruit in a towel, and another older woman removes an undergarment (which she claims is clean) to give to the new mother. Naomi plays with her doll along the way, observing that her brother is too surly and dissatisfied.
The story flashes forward to 1962, when Aunt Emily and the family take a trip back to the interior where the Japanese Canadians were exiled. The Slocan they had known in the 1940s was gone, none of the huts where they had lived remained, and the forest had grown around where they had lived before. Aunt Emily reminds them that they were discriminated against and mistreated.
Returning to 1942, Obasan and the children enjoy the fresh air in Slocan. Nakayama-sensei, their minister from British Columbia, is there to greet them. They pass through town, past a general store, then on gravel over a creek toward the foot of a mountain where their home will be. The house is small and low and nestled in the trees, and to Naomi, it feels subterranean.
They wake and find the home is brighter than it was the day before. Nomura-obasan, an elderly handicapped woman from the community, is to live with them. Naomi realizes how frail Nomura-obasan is when she can’t find the bedpan. She has to assist Nomura-obasan outside to an outhouse. Stephen plays music on the record player, mostly favorites their mother once liked.
Grandma Nakane dies, and they travel to the Odd Fellows Hall for her wake. Grandma and Grandpa Nakane had also come to Slocan originally but were transferred to New Denver, an hour away, presumably because there was better medical care available. Naomi observes that her grandparents would have preferred to stay in Slocan with the family, but that, as in so many instances, people have to put others’ requirements before their own and restrain emotion to make things go smoothly. To be emotive is to be “wagamama”—a Japanese word for selfish. Obasan teaches Naomi to think of others first and not become “wagamama.” After the wake, they go to a cremation ceremony.
Seasons change and snow falls in Slocan, and good news arrives: Uncle is coming to join the family, according to Nakayama-sensei, and Stephen can have his cast removed. The family prepares a nice meal and Uncle arrives. Nomura-obasan asks about the children’s father, and Uncle hesitates and doesn’t provide an update about his health or whereabouts. “The answers are not answers at all,” Naomi says of how people respond to her questions. Stephen seems to know where he is, but no one tells Naomi. They play music and sing, and within days Stephen’s cast is removed.
Stephen and Naomi begin attending school in Slocan in May 1943. Spring is a beautiful time in Slocan, and the family repairs the house and gardens from it. The Japanese children all attend school together, and the white children go to a school elsewhere. Kenji and Miyuki, classmates of Naomi, come to visit one day in June 1943. They play in the woods and run up to the top of a bluff where they see a “King bird”—a magical creature who detects lies in children and cuts their tongues off, according to a legend. Naomi falls to sleep that night wondering who in her house would have a tongue cut off, and for which lies.
Naomi goes to a lake in the woods with Kenji not far from the home of Rough Lock Bill, an old local miner who is known for being gruff with children. From the bluff near where they play, Naomi can see the road to New Denver, where both her father and grandfather have been hospitalized, according to Stephen. While she plays with Kenji, Rough Lock Bill approaches them and asks her to speak, but she is hesitant. Though gruff at first, he is generally kind to the children and tells them a legend about how the town of Slocan got its name.
After Rough Lock Bill leaves them, Noami joins Kenji on his raft, despite advice against this from her family. The raft begins approaching dangerous waters, and she must jump or be swept away, but she can’t swim. Kenji jumps and runs for help, and she jumps in the water and tries to swim. Soon, Rough Lock Bill rescues her.
Naomi wakes up in the Slocan hospital in a crowded room. While a nurse combs her tangled hair, she reads from her second-grade-level reading textbook and reflects on the fact that her father and Grandpa Nakane are also in the hospital in New Denver. She learns from Stephen her father is sick, but it’s not clear how sick he is. She reflects on death. “Death comes to the world in many unexpected places.”
Naomi and Stephen are walking to school when Percy Bower, a bully, and some of his friends begin taunting them, calling Stephen a “gimpy Jap” and other rude names; they ask him if he is walking his girlfriend to school. Stephen prepares for a fight, but a woman comes out of a house and stops everything. They pass the home of Miyuki, a friend of Naomi.
Then they see a group of five or six boys killing a chicken, which they watch only briefly because they risk being late for school. Naomi reflects on all the animal deaths that have happened around them and the racism they face on walks to school. She equates it with the imperialism and racism around them.
Nomura-obasan has moved to the home of friends or family by the time Naomi returns from the hospital. The rest of 1943 is peaceful; time passes, and Naomi reads her comics, Stephen his newspapers, and the town thrives as its inhabitants-run businesses. She enjoys going to the public bathhouse, a place of warmth to rest the bones, where women and children are happy.
But she remembers a night in 1945 when she and Obasan went to the baths later than usual because they had spent the evening sorting stones and debris from trays of rice. They run into Nomura-obasan at the bathhouse, and also see two of Naomi’s classmates named Yuki and Reiko who, along with their mother, snub Nomi and Obasan. When Naomi is headed home with Obasan, she sees the girls again, and they tell her that her family has TB (tuberculosis) and that they can’t play with her. She asks what TB is and doesn’t receive an answer explaining the disease. Instead, she is told some people equate illness with character and say it is shameful.
This segment of Kogawa’s novel takes place during World War II after Canada succeeded in displacing more than 20,000 Japanese Canadians from coastal towns and interning them in remote interior villages in provinces such as Alberta. By rotating the story between Naomi’s present-day experience reviewing Aunt Emily’s papers, Naomi’s memories, and Naomi’s new understanding of Aunt Emily’s accounts of the past, Kogawa begins to leverage the novel’s structure in order to show the reader that what she has crafted is a tale about a family’s different versions of the past.
The first fourteen chapters of the novel remain close to the present action of Naomi sitting in Obasan’s house, reviewing old papers and reminiscing about the past. But the middle chapters let her memories stray further into the past with fewer returns back to the present tense, allowing the reader, like Naomi, to lose himself in her reverie and her memories of what it was like to grow up in Slocan—the town where Naomi, Stephen, and Obasan were transported under the Canadian government’s orders. The first fourteen chapters of the book establish the nature of the disparity between Aunt Emily’s and Naomi’s versions of past events, but this segment of the novel focuses on Naomi’s version—and begins to show that Naomi is aware that her version is incomplete or composed of bits and fragments of information that do not contain the entire truth. Kogawa establishes Naomi’s specific version of events so that the next section can begin to undo and revise Naomi’s view of how things really were for the Japanese Canadians.
Naomi’s memories of life in Slocan are relatively pleasant. After some adjustments—such as Nomura-obasan’s presence in the family home—and with some longing for Vancouver in her heart, she, Stephen, and Obasan settle in to life in Slocan. To her child’s eye, the small home in the woods where they live—with its bright oilcloth on the table, the fresh air, and nearby mountain—is pleasurable. She and her brother are able to eventually attend school, and the town becomes a busy hub of activity full of small merchants, churches, and a community center for movies and social events. She has school friends such as Miyuki and Kenji with whom to play in the woods.
However, in this section Kogawa begins to show how Naomi questions the information she is given, and the silent approach her family takes when it comes to discussing important matters. When she asks direct and basic questions, they are met with no answer or an indirect answer. “The answers are not answers at all,” she remarks. When she asks where her father is, or what TB is, she is told that everyone can pray for her father or that some people believe illness is wrong. While she didn’t know the answers to these questions, Naomi begins to realize that there was nothing wrong in asking them and that the answers she was given were inadequate. She awakens to the idea that she has been uninformed, if not misinformed, by her own family—a theme that will gain in strength as the novel progresses. Her brother is more aware of what is happening than she is, for some reason.
Naomi also reflects on the cultural reasons for the lack of clear information in her family. She notes that Obasan has always taught her not to be “wagamama,” or selfish. She must never assert her own needs at the expense of pleasing others. Naomi believes she sees the pain that this causes not just for herself but also for other people such as her grandparents who might have wanted to stay in Slocan but weren’t able to make that demand. In this same way, the reader realizes that, unconsciously, Naomi is recognizing that her own reticence about asking questions and getting answers has been taught to her by her family but that she knows, at least intellectually, this is not healthy or wise.
Aside from highlighting Naomi’s lessons about being “wagamama” and their role in keeping her reticent and satisfied with unsatisfying answers to her questions, Kogawa also displays the way in which childhood legends work in Naomi’s expanding mind, prodding her to question what the world has taught her about honesty and reality. While playing with her friends Miyuki and Kenji, she believes she spots the mythical “King bird” who weighs and judges children’s honesty, then comes in the night to cut the tongues out of the mouths of liars. Though it’s only a legend, Naomi wonders if the King bird would dare to cut the tongues out of any of her family members. She wonders if they are honest or if they’ve been lying. Her musing seems to indicate a growing awareness that a lack of full honesty is almost the same thing as outright dishonesty: it is a form of lying by omission.
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