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Obasan

Joy Kogawa

Chapters 15–20

Chapters 12–14

Chapters 21–24

Summary: Chapter 15

Naomi remembers taking the train to Slocan in 1942, when she was around five years old. Stephen was on crutches. A young woman on the train had recently given birth to a premature baby and had no supplies. Obasan gave her apples and oranges, and an old woman gave her an underskirt to make diapers. Naomi played with her toys, particularly an ornamental doll, now battered, that Mother gave her before going to Japan.

Summary: Chapter 16

In 1962, at age twenty-six, Naomi joins Aunt Emily, Uncle, and Obasan and revisits some of the old ghost towns, including Slocan. No trace of the Japanese Canadian presence remained. Naomi remembers arriving at Slocan as a child and bumping into Nakayama-sensei, the Anglican priest from Vancouver. He walked them through the forest to their new house. On the way, Naomi realized she had lost her doll. The two-room hut was crumbling, low-ceilinged, and dark. Stephen and Naomi went back outside, where they saw dozens of butterflies. Stephen slashed at them with his crutch because, he told Naomi, they eat your clothes.

Summary: Chapter 17

Naomi, Stephen, and Obasan shared the house in Slocan with Nomura-obasan, an elderly woman. One day, when Obasan was away, Nomura-obasan had to use the bedpan, but Naomi couldn’t find it anywhere. She helped Nomura-obasan to the outhouse and had to stay in there with her until she finished. Inside, Stephen played the records Mother loved. Naomi had stopped asking about her lost doll.

Summary: Chapter 18

Naomi remembers staring on a bridge in Slocan with Obasan after Grandma Nakane died in New Denver, an hour’s drive from Slocan, following an illness. She thought, then, about the need to put other people’s desires before your own, and to “make the way smooth by restraining emotion.” To do otherwise is to be wagamama—self-absorbed and rude.

During the funeral, Naomi drew and Stephen sulked. Afterward, Obasan explained that Grandpa Nakane was Buddhist, unlike the Christian Katos, and therefore Grandma Nakane would be cremated. She took Naomi and Stephen to the funeral pyre. Stephen was allowed to set the pyre alight. Naomi thought of something Obasan had told Stephen: Just as samurai swords are subjected to fire, people are strengthened by hard experiences.

Summary: Chapter 19

Winter came to Slocan. One snowy day, they learned that Uncle was coming to join them. Obasan rearranged the furniture and cooked. When Uncle arrived, she greeted him in an official-sounding voice. The adults discussed Naomi and Stephen’s father. Naomi asked where he was, and Stephen scoffed at her ignorance. He played the flutes Uncle had brought. In the following days, Uncle made many improvements to the hut. He pulled Stephen on a homemade sled to the hospital, where Stephen’s cast was removed.

Summary: Chapter 20

With Stephen’s help, Uncle built a garden in the yard. Everyone in the family gathered ferns, mushrooms, and berries to eat. In 1943, Stephen and Naomi started attending an all-Japanese school. One day they played in the woods with Kenji and Miyuki, two of their classmates. They climbed up to Minnie’s Bluff, where they saw a kingbird. Kenji said that according to Rough Lock Bill, an ornery local man, kingbirds slice the tongues of liars in half.

Analysis

In these chapters, Naomi gives herself over fully to the past, immersing herself in memories of her childhood. Perhaps because of the power and immediacy of Aunt Emily’s letters, and Naomi’s own internalization of Aunt Emily’s insistence that the past must be faced, Naomi manages to get over her initial unwillingness to remember old and painful memories. Instead of shifting back and forth between World War II and present day affairs, as in earlier chapters, the narrative in chapters 15 through 20 settles in the 1940s. By sticking with the World War II era storyline, these chapters show Naomi’s new willingness to remember her childhood. At the same time, stepping away from the present day storyline allows us, the readers, to become absorbed in the Slocan plot.

By playing with the ornamental doll, the young Naomi retains a connection to her distant mother. She also channels her own feelings into the toy. She imagines that despite her impassive face, the train ride privately excites the doll. Pretending to make the doll talk, she offers Stephen food and entertainment. Naomi is too retiring and perhaps traumatized to express these feelings and impulses in her own voice, but the doll gives her a vent for her emotions.

The loss of the doll is an important marker of Naomi’s increasing worldliness. Since the doll is associated with Naomi’s mother, its absence suggests the distance Naomi feels from her mother, the ultimate protector of her innocence. Perhaps even more significant than the loss is Naomi’s response to that loss. By Chapter 17, she has stopped asking for her doll, which points to her ability to endure hardship uncomplainingly, and her increasing awareness that adults can’t fix every problem. Earlier in the same chapter, the young Naomi loses another piece of her innocence when she shoulders the adult responsibility of helping the sick, elderly Nomura-obasan use the outhouse.

But Naomi is still unmistakably a child, and her youth can be a source of frustration. Unlike Stephen, she is often left in the dark because adults consider her too young to handle disturbing information. As a result, she doesn’t know key facts, such as where their father is. While she makes tentative steps toward maturity in these chapters, she is still easily confused. When Kenji tells her kingbirds cut out the tongues of liars, she half believes him, lying awake at night and worrying about the lies the bird has heard. On the other hand, Naomi’s youth protects her. Unlike Stephen, she doesn’t quite grasp the reality of death or imprisonment, and the difficulties of their lives don’t fill her with a sense of injustice, as they do him. She sits placidly drawing during Grandma Nakane’s funeral, while Stephen sulks, a tableau that illustrates the siblings’ different attitudes.

Despite the difficulty of the family’s situation, these chapters contain rays of hope. The removal of Stephen’s cast and the onset of spring create a sense of rejuvenation. Most important is the arrival of Uncle. His fatherly presence comforts everyone, and he makes significant improvements to the cabin and the yard. With Uncle and Obasan reunited, the makeshift family is complete. Still, despite the relative cheer of this portion of the novel, makeshift is the operative word. Uncle and Obasan stand in for Naomi and Stephen’s parents, but they can’t replace them.

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