Naomi found out that the family had to move. At the time she didn’t understand, but as an adult she has seen the government letters ordering her family out of Slocan. As the family packed, Nomura-obasan, Saito-ojisan, Sachiko, and Nakayama-sensei came over. The minister led a service. By sitting on a box, Stephen accidentally cracked one of his mother’s records. The service continued, and the priest broke the communion wafer. Afterward, he said goodbye to everyone and went off to lead another service.
Father disappeared one day. People poured out of town on trains. One day, Naomi and her family left Slocan. No one told Naomi where they were going or where her father was.
Back in the present day, Naomi expects Aunt Emily and Stephen to arrive at Obasan’s soon. She feels exhausted with the effort of remembering the past, and more broadly with the burden of behaving politely, not staring, and trying to disappear. She thinks that by delving into the past, she is escaping the present, and vice versa.
She remembers talking to Aunt Emily in Granton after the conference first mentioned in Chapter 7. Naomi says that in 1945, families like hers had to choose between moving east of the Rockies and going to Japan. She knows that Kenji’s family went to Japan, where they suffered greatly. She is no longer in touch with anyone from Slocan.
On that night, she asked Aunt Emily if Mother and Grandma starved in Japan. They went for a walk, and Emily said she’d told Naomi all she could. She then changed the topic to Nakayama-sensei and his attempts to keep the community unified. She said no one in the family got their land back, even Uncle Dan, who was an intelligence officer in the Far East.
Naomi wondered if the efforts of letter-writers like Aunt Emily did any good.
In 1945, Obasan, Uncle, Naomi, and Stephen went to the city of Lethbridge, Alberta, and then drove to a farm in Granton. They moved their things into a one-room hut and went to sleep. By morning, dust had coated everything.
Naomi mentions a newspaper clipping from Aunt Emily’s package. The clipping describes the industry of “Jap evacuees” who worked on beet farms. Naomi says she can’t stand to remember the hardship: the flies that swarmed everywhere, their house, which was actually a chicken coop; the bedbugs; the muddy water they boiled and drank; the baths taken in the same tub; fainting in the beet fields; and being too tired to sing or talk. They stayed there for three years, until 1948, when Naomi was twelve. Not until 1949 were expelled Japanese Canadians allowed to return home.
Addressing Aunt Emily, Naomi says that the past will no doubt repeat itself in a different guise.
In Granton, they received word from Father that Grandpa Nakane had died the day before they left Slocan, and that Father himself had had an operation. In the summer, the only way Stephen and Naomi could cool off was by sitting in muddy water or in the root cellar. In school, children tormented them with racist remarks. All of the Japanese students were called by Americanized versions of their names. Stephen was allowed to play the piano at school.
The pace of the narrative picks up significantly in these chapters, and for an important reason: Naomi finds her years on the beet farm too painful to think about. Even as she writes about them, she protests that she can’t talk about them, that it will kill her. Whereas she lingered over small incidents and little details in her chapters about Slocan, she races through three years of life in Alberta in just a few pages. She also returns to her earlier technique of cutting rapidly back and forth between the present moment and past memories. This back-and-forth movement relieves the agony of staying in one place for too long. The fact that Naomi was able to linger for so long in her memories of Slocan suggests that they were relatively happy recollections.
Despite their brevity, these chapters are powerful and moving. Their spare quality is, in part, what makes them so successful. For example, the description of the family’s first night in the chicken coop that would be their house is brief and has little of the lyricism that characterizes much of Kogawa’s prose. In spite of, and because of, this spare quality, it forcefully conveys Naomi’s exhaustion, her mute acceptance of disasters she can’t control, and her full understanding of the dreadfulness of the family’s new living situation. The restraint of the prose reflects Naomi’s wariness, stunted reactions, and willingness to endure hardship without a lot of melodramatic complaining.
As an adult, Naomi faces some of the same stonewalling that made her childhood so perplexing. When she asks Aunt Emily about her mother, for example, she gets little more than a pained stare and a cryptic remark before Emily changes the subject. While Naomi does not react to this kind of evasion in a direct way, she is clearly frustrated with her aunt. In part, her irritation stems from the fact that Emily is more concerned with the broad issues than with specific people—and in Naomi’s view, a bunch of people pecking away at outraged letters will have little to no effect on anyone. She cares about her family members, not about the issues.
In Chapter 29, one of the most arresting in the novel, Naomi gives full vent to her fury. If remembering her time in Slocan was bearable, even sometimes enjoyable, remembering her days on the beet farm is incredibly painful. She lists the hardships she suffered in an anguished torrent, interweaving them with her present-day appeals to Aunt Emily. Naomi is furious at the government and at the cruelty of people, yes, but she is also angry with her aunt for failing to understand the pain and, ultimately, the uselessness of reviewing the past. Reliving what happened won’t give Obasan the youth stolen from her, or bring Uncle back to life. And in Naomi’s view, it won’t prevent future atrocities. As she says, addressing Aunt Emily, “Greed, selfishness, and hatred remain as constant as the human condition, do they not? Or are you thinking that through lobbying and legislation, speechmaking and storytelling, we can extricate ourselves from our foolish ways?” In this impassioned, vivid, cynical, and compelling chapter, Naomi heaps scorn on the idea that the efforts of energetic optimists will enable victims to make peace with their pasts, or stop future disasters from occurring.