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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Obasan is a novel by the Japanese-Canadian author Joy Kogawa. First published by Lester and Orpen Dennys in 1981, it chronicles Canada's internment and persecution of its citizens of Japanese descent during World War II from the perspective of a young child. In 2005, it was the One Book, One Vancouver selection.
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