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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.
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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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