Although Naomi is the novel’s narrator, her character is something of a mystery. Indeed, opacity is a key part of her personality. An earnest and quiet, almost silent, child, she turns into a self-contained, unknowable adult. As a girl, she suffers various serious traumas, most notably displacement, internment, and sexual molestation. To live a functional adult life, she shuts herself off from her past and her emotions. In the first chapters of the novel, Naomi tells us next to nothing about herself or her life. We lack basic information about her, an intentional gap Kogawa uses to suggest Naomi lacks basic information about herself.

As the novel progresses, Naomi rediscovers that information. We learn a great deal about the questions that preoccupy her. We know she thinks about what happened to her mother, and whether it’s better to leave the past alone or to investigate. We also know she ponders to what extent classic Japanese character attributes oppress young women. Yet by the end of the novel, we don’t know much more about Naomi—her likes and dislikes, her quirks and foibles—than we did at the beginning. This persistent opacity points to the lasting effect of childhood crises.

We do know that Naomi is a survivor. Her life is a catalogue of miseries: Her next door neighbor abuses and possibly rapes her; her mother disappears without explanation; her family is forced to move, and move again; her father dies; she must work her fingers to the bone on a beet farm and live in a chicken coop; her older brother moves away and all but renounces the family; and she endures the casual racism of her students and neighbors. Despite this litany of disasters, Naomi is uncomplaining. She shows flashes of bitterness here and there and feels passionate anger about the most horrifying of the many injustices heaped on her family. However, she endures the outrages in silent stoicism while they happen, looking back on them with careful interest once they are in the past. Refusing to play the role of victim, she is amazingly wry, observant, and lyrical.