Naomi and Kenji were playing by the lake one summer day when Rough Lock Bill came along. After remarking that he didn’t understand the fuss about skin color, he told them a story about an “Indian brave” who survived a plague and went to look for a friendly place for his people to live. He wound up in Slocan. Its name, Rough Lock Bill said, came from something the brave said to his people: “ ‘If you go slow . . . you can go. Slow can go.’ ” Rough Lock said that he had seen the last remaining Indian, who never spoke, but chirped like a bird. Rough Lock then remarked that Naomi was remarkably quiet.
Rough Lock went back to his cabin. Kenji took Naomi out on his raft. Kenji fell off and called to Naomi to jump, but she couldn’t swim. Kenji went back to the shore and ran away. Naomi was sure he wouldn’t tell anyone what had happened. Scared and hoping she could swim, Naomi jumped into the water. She began to drown, but Rough Lock Bill rescued her.
Naomi woke in a hospital. The beds in the room were packed tightly together. While a nurse combed her hair roughly, Naomi thought about what Stephen told her: Father was in a hospital in New Denver and might never come home. She thought about chicks, and what it meant that they were yellow but eventually turned white. Because Stephen had a game called Yellow Peril, Naomi associated the color yellow with cowardice.
She thought about walking to school with Stephen one day. Two boys stopped them and challenged Stephen to a fight, calling him a “gimpy Jap.” He was going to fight them, but a missionary woman intervened. They got to school, and Naomi approached a circle of boys. She saw that they were torturing a chicken. They had cut its throat and were letting it bleed to death slowly while it struggled. The bell rang, and Naomi dashed to class, where the students sang the Canadian national anthem and the school song. Another day on the way to school, a girl with white hair accused Naomi of throwing her kitten down an outhouse hole. Naomi walked by the outhouse the next day and heard the kitten still meowing.
When Naomi returned home some time later, Nomura-obasan had left to live with her daughter. Time passed. Germany surrendered. The Slocan community grew, businesses popped up, and habits formed. Naomi and Obasan often went to the public bathhouse. One night in 1945, they bumped into Nomura-obasan there. Two unfriendly women whispered and stared at Naomi, and hurried two girls, sisters and schoolmates of Naomi’s, out of the bath. Sachiko, a high school girl, came into the bath with her aged grandfather, Saito-ojisan, and helped him bathe. Later, the girls explained that their mother said Naomi and everyone in her family had TB. Naomi ran home and asked what TB is. Without answering her, Uncle said, it’s not shameful to be sick, it’s just unlucky.
The morning after the war ended, Naomi had a nightmare about a being that resembled her mother. She got up and went to the outhouse. When she returned, she found that Father was in the cabin. Stephen came in and cried out with delight. He and Father played songs on their flutes.
As the story of Naomi’s childhood in Slocan continues, she delves into memories within memories. Not only does she recall being in the hospital, for example, but she also remembers what she remembered while she was in the hospital. The richness and specificity of Naomi’s memories is partly a result of the novelist’s creative license. Kogawa is writing a work of fiction, not a memoir, and as a result she is free to imbue Naomi with an almost superhuman memory. We might be skeptical about a memoirist who purports to remember the dreams she had as a seven-year-old, but we don’t think twice when a fictional character is doing the remembering.
In addition, the increasing depth of Naomi’s memory underlines the value of delving into the past. At the beginning of the novel, even the most basic facts about Naomi’s childhood were mysterious to us, and perhaps to her. As she continues to think about Slocan and the war years, however, detail after detail comes back to her. Kogawa suggests remembering is a skill, and like any skill, it improves with practice. By this point in the novel, Naomi’s memories have changed from an unknowable blur into a rich tapestry alive with tiny, beautiful touches. She recalls the fascination of Rough Lock’s Adam’s apple, the moisture on the walls of the bathhouse, the tangles in her hair, the sticky rice balls in her lunchbox, and on and on. Remembering was once a painful exercise for her. To some extent it still is, but the sensory richness of her memories now suggests that she takes at least a little pleasure in them.
Chapter 22 shows Naomi languishing in the hospital and presents a powerful study of a child’s suffering. In her weakened state, Naomi is overwhelmed by a torrent of images, all of which feature small, helpless things suffering at the hands of powerful beings. The bleeding, fluttering chicken tortured by the boys, the meowing cat abandoned by the racist white girl eager to falsely blame Naomi, the brother forced to endure the racist insults of bullies, all point to Naomi’s feelings of helplessness and victimization. Naomi identifies with these small beings. Like them, she has been treated badly by people older and stronger than she. In addition, her fixation on these innocents reveals her grim belief that the world is a topsy-turvy place where trustworthy authority figures are nowhere to be found and the defenseless are tortured for sport. Naomi’s solitude in the hospital underlines this idea of a world gone mad. While we know that Obasan has visited her, she does not make an appearance in the chapter, and the only visible authority figure is the nurse who yanks at the knots in Naomi’s hair. Only when her father returns is some sense of order restored to Naomi’s world.
Naomi’s suffering and terror are entirely internal. She is a quiet, stoic child by nature, so she is not given to expressing herself. She sees herself as a survivor. When the nurse rips at her hair, she thinks of the weeds and trees that are ripped from the ground, as well as the pain the fairy-tale character Rapunzel must have endured when her prince used her long hair for a ladder. Naomi tells herself that she too can endure discomfort without complaint. In addition, she has been taught the value of suppressing emotion out of consideration for other people. And finally, she has gathered that from Stephen’s racist game that to be “yellow” is to be cowardly, and she is determined not to be yellow. All of these factors combine to keep Naomi quiet about her fears, doubts, and physical pains. The achievement of these chapters, particularly Chapter 22, is to show us what can roil beneath children’s placid exteriors.