The time: 1972. The place: Granton, Alberta. Naomi Nakane is a 36-year-old middle school teacher. One day, she's saved from her boring class by an important phone call. It's bad news. Her uncle is dead.
Naomi's aunt (the Japanese for "aunt" is "obasan") is super old. She's also alone: her husband just died. So Naomi does what any good niece would do: she pays her a visit.
Obasan seems strangely unperturbed about Uncle's death. Even though Naomi keeps asking her about it, Obasan seems to have nothing to say. Naomi tries to get her to rest, but Obasan's not budging. They go into the attic instead.
This is where the story really begins. Naomi remembers her own past in the internment camps and how her mother disappeared one day without any explanation. When Obasan finds a package from Aunt Emily (her other aunt, not Obasan), things really get interesting.
It's a huge stack of papers. Aunt Emily's letters, journals, and papers lead Naomi on a wild ride through her childhood. She remembers her mother. Her beautiful house. The neighbor who molests her. Basically, she remembers all the things about her childhood that she wanted to forget.
Naomi was pretty young when the war starts, so she doesn't remember very much. Aunt Emily's papers fill in the gaps. Through her words we see the horrors of the internment camps, the helplessness of the Japanese Canadian community, and the hysteria taking over the country. Naomi's mother leaves to take care of a relative in Japan, and various family members are taken to internment camps.
Aunt Emily's journals last until the family is forced to leave to Slocan, a remote town. Naomi can remember Slocan but she still wasn't old enough to understand all the things that happened while she was there. She's especially mystified by what could have happened to her mother.
Slocan is a town full of racism and prejudice. Nearly everyday is a struggle, just to get to school. But the family cobbles together a semblance of a life there, and they manage to find a bit of peace and happiness.
But disaster strikes again when Naomi's father dies. And then, one day, the family is exiled. That's right, they are exiled from their place of exile. Apparently one exile wasn't enough.
They move into a one-room hut on a sugar beet farm. By now Naomi is old enough to hate everything. Seriously, everything. It is all so horrific—the backbreaking labor, the heat and the filth—that she barely remembers anything. She successfully blocks most of it out. When the Japanese Canadians are set free, her family moves out of the hut and into the town.
Fast forward to the present day. Everyone is in Obasan's house for Uncle's funeral when something happens. An old letter reveals the truth about Naomi's mom. She was a victim of the Nagasaki bombing. She didn't want her children to know about her suffering, so she swore Aunt Emily to secrecy. Everyone is shaken by the news.
The book ends where it begins. Naomi is in Uncle's valley, looking at the river and the flowers. But there is one difference: now she knows why her Uncle came there so often. She can feel the peacefulness.
- We begin this story, strangely enough, with silence. Someone talks about quietness, stillness, and the sea, and they don't seem to happy. Then they ask a question. Will speech give them the answers they have been searching for all this time? The chapter ends with no response. How's that for mystery?
- The narrator is in a still valley with a small river flowing through it. Her uncle is here too. Nearby is the village that has been their home for over twenty years.
- Uncle is a little weird. He thinks that the grass in the valley looks like the sea, and even seems to be getting seasick. We're not sure what's going on, and his broken English is kind of confusing.
- The first time they came to this valley, the narrator was scared about rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes are terrifying: we'd be creeped out, too. But not Uncle. He just chides her for being a scaredy cat and asks how old she is. Our narrator is thirty-six.
- The narrator and Uncle visit the valley every year, but the narrator doesn't know why. She asks, but there are no answers. Just silence.
- After a while, the narrator goes off to pick some flowers. She got bored of sitting with Uncle, we guess. The chapter ends with the narrator looking over the valley in the night.
- The chapter begins with the narrator (we are never going to learn their name, are we?) telling us she will never forget this day. She is a grade school teacher in the middle of class when we meet up with her again.
- It's a diverse class. There are native Canadians, half Japanese children, and a troublemaker, a freckle-faced redhead named Sigmund. (There is always the troublemaker kid. We remember Susie from fourth grade. She was insane.)
- He's a bad kid, but because of him we finally learn our narrator's name. Megumi Naomi Nakane.
- Sigmund has a bunch of rude questions for Ms. Nakane. Personal questions. Here are her answers: She's not married. She's tiny: five foot one and 105 pounds. People assume that she is a foreigner, but she's third-generation Japanese Canadian. Oh, and she's so over this job.
- Another fact: her family breeds spinsters. Her Aunt Emily is also unmarried, and from what Naomi tells us it sounds like she's an interesting lady.
- Before the kids can ask about her Aunt's love life, Naomi gets a phone call. Uncle is dead. At first she doesn't know how to feel, but then she rushes into a list of things to do, people to call, and things to be scheduled.
- Before long, she's on the road. To see Obasan. "Obasan" is Japanese for "aunt."
- Surprise! Or at least a surprise for Obasan. She's nearly deaf, so she's pretty shocked when Naomi turns up out of nowhere.
- Instead of crying, Obasan just makes tea. Naomi looks around the old house, since no one is talking, and spots Uncle's stone bread. It's not something fancy; it's just a really horrible recipe for really hard bread. Uncle seems to like it, but Naomi? Not so much.
- Well, he won't be making stone bread anymore. Naomi asks about his death again. Obasan says she had no idea what was going on. Doctors gave him medicine via IV but it was too late.
- What's going to happen to Obasan now? Maybe Naomi will take care of her. Her brother Stephen (who ran away from the family as soon as he could) sure isn't going to help.
- For a new widow, Obasan sure has a lot of energy. She cleans Naomi's shoes, does dishes, and tidies up the house instead of going to sleep. Maybe she should move in with Naomi, her niece thinks. Nah, you can't take Obasan out of this house. They're one and the same.
- Naomi looks at her aunt and thinks that she could be any old woman anywhere in the world.
- But enough of all these philosophical musings. It's time to go to sleep.
- Or not.
- While she bustles around the kitchen, Naomi looks at an old photo. It was taken when Stephen was born. Everyone's in it. Dr. Kato a.k.a. Grandpa Kato, Grandma Kato, Grandma Nakane and Grandpa Nakane, everyone. All gathered around tiny baby Stephen.
- Grandpa Nakane was a boat builder. He was the first to come to Canada, and when his family saw he was doing okay, they came too. His cousin and her son, Isamu, decided to tag along. Isamu is Naomi's Uncle, Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam marries Aunt Ayako (Obasan) and they try to have children, but Obasan only delivers stillbirths. They give up and get a dog instead.
- Still in the picture. Naomi looks at the star of the show, Stephen. His dad holds him up like he's a little magic trick. Nearby are Naomi's Aunt Emily and her mom, two sisters that are as different as you can imagine. Aunt Emily is short and stocky, while Naomi's mom is delicate and fragile. How did they grow up in the same family?
- Once upon a time, the Katos and the Nakanes were supremely happy. At least according to this photo. But even back then, the family was split between Canada and Japan. Aunt Emily says everyone in the family has always been best friends forever. Hmm. All of these things can't be true, can they?
- Then things went horribly wrong. There was a worrying letter from Japan. A Canadian Mountie drove off with Uncle Sam's beautiful handcrafted boat. What was going on?
- We don't know. No one tells Naomi anything.
- It's past midnight. Grandma's wandering around the attic with a flashlight, looking for something. We don't know what. She pushes over magazines, albums, and ID cards, but she still doesn't find it.
- Meanwhile, Naomi is bored. There are spiders in the attic and Naomi shines her flashlight to see them, but she ends up revealing just how disgusting the attic really is. Gross. Let's just get out of here.
- But when Obasan's flashlight falls on an old patchwork quilt, Naomi remembers something. She had a mom. She disappeared. What happened? Just like with Uncle, Obasan doesn't answer Naomi when she asks.
- By now Obasan doesn't even remember why she came up here. Naomi leads her back to her room. She falls asleep.
- Naomi is dreaming.
- There are no words. A man and a woman appear, then another man and woman. They are in a forest full of mist.
- There is a tall thin man. He's in charge, and he doesn't seem too nice. They all work at clearing the forest but no one knows why they have to do it.
- A lion dog (remember this is a dream) that belongs to the man in charge appears and yawns. Naomi looks inside its mouth (who does that?) and realizes that it's a robot. This changes everything. That's what Naomi says, anyway.
- Now Uncle is in the dream. He is doing a ritual flower dance. Then the dream is over.
- Yeah, we don't know what that was about either, but you might as well get used to it. There's a lot more dreams where that came from and they just get weirder from here on out.
- It's the day after Naomi's Uncle died. Obasan is already up and cleaning things in the kitchen. Then we notice that there's a package on the kitchen table. It's for Naomi, from Aunt Emily. We guess Obasan finally found that thing she was looking for.
- The package is huge and heavy. It's already been opened, but when Naomi asks Obasan about it she doesn't answer. As usual.
- The package is a journal.
- Last year Aunt Emily promised to send Naomi her "works," but she didn't expect her to send a journal.
- Even though we're itching to read what's inside of Aunt Emily's journal, Naomi spends some time describing her Aunt. Picture a small lady with chunky legs. She doesn't stop talking, and she is constantly on a crusade for Japanese Canadians. That's Aunt Emily.
- She hands Naomi academic papers about WWII and the internment camps every couple of seconds. Aunt Emily is enraged about everything. Naomi doesn't get it. It's in the past, she thinks, get over it already.
- At home there are more documents. Aunt Emily keeps talking about the same thing even though no one else is interested. Meanwhile Obasan is somewhere else, totally not getting involved. Good idea Obasan.
- Now Naomi has to read Aunt Emily's manuscript. It's her sixty page long epic treatise on the plight of second-generation Japanese Canadians. Naomi skims it.
- What's the point of opening up these old wounds? Uncle and Obasan are grateful for everything Canada has given them. Shouldn't Aunt Emily be too? When everybody heads to bed, Naomi tries to tell Aunt Emily to let bygones be bygones. Yeah right, in your dreams.
- Then Aunt Emily asks Naomi if she wants to know everything. She says yes. So here we are, five months later, and Naomi has a giant package in her lap.
- There is some twine wrapping the package, and Obasan saves it for a rainy day. She saves everything. Seriously, everything, Even Popsicle sticks. Even old putrefying food. Gross.
- Maybe some memories should be forgotten. Like the memory of what was once a delicious loaf of bread and is now a gray, fuzzy science experiment.
- There's something in the package Naomi can't identify. They are two Japanese-style envelopes with letters inside, written in Japanese characters on fancy rice paper. Naomi asks Obasan about them. No answers, again.
- Naomi is so curious about Aunt Emily's package that she wants to read it all at once. But she came here for a reason. Obasan just lost her husband yesterday. We think she's just a bit more important than the diary.
- The next time that Naomi sees Obasan, she has a picture in her hands. It's Naomi and her mom looking happy. Naomi tries to see when it was taken, but there is no date on the back of the picture.
- Naomi is holding on to her mom's leg. She wants to hide her face, but she looks at the street since people will laugh if she hides. It's rude to look in people's eyes, so they stare at the floor when they get on a streetcar.
- So no staring, but familial nudity is totally okay. Naomi takes baths with Grandma Kato everyday. The boiling water turns her skin bright red from the heat.
- After the bath Naomi is wrapped up comfortably in her Japanese nightclothes. She feels totally safe in her home. This was a beautiful house, and she doesn't want to remember it because it was taken away from her family.
- Their house even had a music room. It had a piano, a violin, a piccolo, and even a shakuhachi that her family would play together some evenings. Naomi's the only one who doesn't play.
- When her dad sees that she doesn't join them, he tells her the story of Ninomiya Kinjiro. He studied hard to become a great teacher, her dad says. Naomi should too.
- She finishes giving us the tour of the house and hands the picture back to Obasan.
- Obasan says the photo was once upon a time. Like fairytales. Obasan is older than Naomi's grandmother was when she died, and older than anyone that she knows now. She must be like that old wise woman in all the fairytales.
- Even before Naomi could talk she was learning the old Japanese stories. Especially Momotaro, the peach boy.
- The story of the peach boy is this: one day an old couple discovers a huge peach. They try to eat it, but out pops Momotaro. Great. They always wanted a son, but never could have one. Eventually Momotaro has to leave, but they don't cry. They don't want to burden him with their sadness, so they just wave goodbye.
- The moral of the story: act with honor and respect for other people's feelings. That's what the women in Naomi's family do. Naomi's mother and grandmother always know what she wants before she wants it. She tries to do the same for them.
- So far, her childhood is great. Naomi doesn't remember being punished or even crying, but that's too good to be true isn't it? Aunt Emily says it's true. Naomi never cried, never talked, and never even smiled. She just drank milk and listened to the story of Momotaro.
- That's not the whole story. There's tons of talking and laughter in Naomi's childhood, but outside of her house she is silent because of trauma she has endured.
- The family has a white hen in the backyard. Her parents bought some chicks, so one day Naomi decides to put them into the cage with the hen. Not such a good idea. The hen kills the chicks.
- You might think she'd be in trouble, but Naomi's mom just fixes the problem. When it's all over Naomi tells her mother everything. She can tell her anything and not be afraid.
- Well, except one thing.
- A man named Old Man Gower molests her when her parents aren't around. He tells her not to say anything to her mother. And it's not just that secret she has to keep, because a boy also molests her during a game of hide and seek.
- Naomi has dreams of women trying to protect themselves from soldiers by seducing them. The plan doesn't work and the soldiers kill them slowly by shooting off their feet.
- When Old Man Gower comes for Naomi, she doesn't struggle. She doesn't talk. She doesn't move. She thinks that maybe if she is quiet, she will be safe.
- Now there is something separating her from her mother, and Naomi feels a rift widening between them. She's only four and she's scared. In her dreams Naomi's legs are being sawn in half.
- We just wanted to let you know that this is about one fourth of the way through the novel, and chapters ten and eleven are probably the happiest ones in the whole book. You've been warned.
- This is when Naomi's mom disappears. Naomi doesn't know why or when she's coming back, but everyone says that she will. Obasan says that her mother has gone to take care of Grandma Kato.
- When they come home from the boat, Naomi makes a surprise for her mother's return. Spools of thread, candy, chocolate, and fluffy toy chicks. But her mother never comes home, and they are still in their hiding place now that Naomi is in her thirties.
- But Naomi had no way of knowing that her mother would never come back. Young Naomi rehearses everything so that she can remember to tell her mother when she comes home. Soon Mother has been gone so long that Obasan lives in her house. She reminds Naomi of her mom.
- One day Naomi wakes up in the middle of the night and here's her father talking to someone. It's Old Man Gower. Naomi doesn't understand why he's there, she doesn't like it, and she's sure this wouldn't be happening if her mother were home.
- One day Stephen comes home with his glasses broken. He won't say what happened, but we can guess. A girl in his class told him that all the Japanese are bad people and will be sent away into remote places in Canada. Naomi asks her dad if it will happen to them. No, he says, they're Canadian.
- Are they Japanese, or are they Canadian? Are they the enemy? It's a riddle that none of the first-generation Japanese can understand.
- Even though he doesn't understand, Grandpa Nakane laughs. He has a bent back and he can't use his right arm. We see him carrying a present to a Christmas concert where Naomi plays one of the angels. It's a big theatrical production, with dramatic lighting and her father singing Gloria In Excelsis Deo.
- All of Christmas is like that. It's full of people, music, and presents. Stephen gets a children's Encyclopedia for Christmas, but Naomi is more interested in it than he is. There are stories about martyrs and brave children.
- One night she is thinking about this and she hears her dad coughing in his study. These days he isn't himself. No one comes over to their house anymore. But this time Aunt Emily is here and she's talking to Naomi's dad.
- It's not a happy conversation. She says Grandpa Nakane is in the sick bay. Naomi wonders why he's at the beach because she doesn't understand what "sick bay" means. Then Aunt Emily talks about "the Pool," and Naomi wonders why so many people are going swimming.
- Now that she thinks about it, she hasn't seen a lot of her family in a while. Aunt Emily and Naomi's dad talk about Saltspring, and Grandma Nakane in a dirty scary place. Dad says something about filling a quota. Naomi doesn't understand any of this, but she's getting more and more afraid.
- Then suddenly the conversation is dropped. Stephen runs into the room to remind Aunt Emily about the curfew.
- We're back to the present and Naomi knows better now. Sick bay isn't a beach. "The Pool" isn't a place to swim; it's an internment camp. Grandma and Grandpa Nakane were among the thousands forced to live in these terrible places.
- Naomi stops reminiscing. What's past is past. What's more important is that Uncle is dead and Obasan is alone.
- Aunt Emily and Stephen are coming tomorrow, and Naomi asks Obasan if she wants to take a bath before bed. She washes her just like Grandma Kato used to wash Naomi as a girl. After the bath Obasan falls straight asleep.
- Now for Aunt Emily's journal. Should she be reading it? Of course she should.
- The first entry is from December 25, 1941. Aunt Emily is twenty-five and she's writing to Naomi's mom, who is in Japan taking care of their mother.
- She tells her big sister what's up in Canada. There is the Pearl Harbor bombing, which makes people even more prejudiced towards Japanese Canadians. There are also the blackouts that frighten Naomi and the curfew that keeps everyone from being out late at night. Things are starting to go crazy. Boats and fishing licenses have been taken away from fishermen for no reason.
- We see a little bit of the Aunt Emily that we've met in these letters, but she's trying not to worry. She's not angry yet. That's for later.
- Aunt Emily also talks about little things in the letter, like knitting sweaters for Emily's father. But mostly, she talks about prejudice and hardship. She hopes that Stephen and Naomi won't be affected by it, but already Stephen is being beat up by the other children.
- The next letter is from a month later. Japanese men are being rounded up and sent to camps now. They still haven't heard from Grandma and Grandpa Nakane, but they assume that they are fine and with friends. The prejudice is becoming more intense, and the family is thinking of moving to someplace safe.
- Next letter: things are getting even worse. They've fired all Japanese Canadian student nurses and they've taken all of their cameras. Now instead of only taking Japanese men, everyone is forced into camps.
- The work camps are disgusting. They have no food, no water, and no protection from the snow in the middle of the long harsh Canadian winter. Canada considers itself a fair and democratic country: this shouldn't be happening.
- By the next letter, Japanese Canadians are not even allowed to travel within Canada. The new internment camp, constructed out of livestock stables, plans to hold thousands of people for an indeterminate amount of time. Yup. Nothing will go wrong with that. We're sure of it.
- Another letter. Steven's limping, but Grandpa Kato doesn't know what's wrong with him. He spends a lot of time playing music.
- Like we guessed, the new camp is disgusting and overrun with diseases. Because there is no plumbing the floor is littered with feces, and maggots have started to live in every nook and cranny of the place.
- From March 22, 1942, Aunt Emily stops writing to Naomi's mom. She's pretty sure she will never see any of the letters so she journals instead.
- Naomi's family is thinking about moving to Toronto to escape the camps. Maybe they could get a sponsor.
- In the next entry, Uncle Dan has been arrested. They think he's a spy because he was carrying maps while driving down a road. Come on guys, carrying roadmaps doesn't make you a spy.
- On April 2, 1942, Aunt Emily writes that Grandpa Kato is sick in bed. Uncle Dan has a lawyer, but things don't look good. No one really knows what's going on
- Aunt Emily is going to turn 26 soon. She feels like an old lady, full of worry instead of joy.
- In the next entry something weird happens. Aunt Emily is starting to believe the prejudice herself. Newspapers are reporting that Japanese naval officers are living on the coast, and she wonders if it's true. She's been reading the news too long.
- Rumors are going around that Japanese Canadians will be taken as war prisoners, but Aunt Emily can't believe it. Grandpa Kato is making himself sicker by working round the clock and taking care of Stephen and Naomi's dad. Then on April 11 he goes to the internment camp. He's nauseated by what he sees.
- Aunt Emily goes to visit the camps and sees Uncle Dan. He's earning two dollars a day at the work camp, which is bad enough, but then she sees his paycheck. $11.75? That can't be right.
- Aunt Emily's friends (Eiko and Fumi) are also at the camps. They are stenographers and are forced to sleep in horse stalls that smell of manure. No matter how they clean, it still stinks.
- Then Aunt Emily finds Grandma Nakane. She couldn't even recognize her at first, since she looks so sick and dirty from being in the camp so long. But when they recognize one another they don't stop crying. Just like Naomi, Grandma Nakane doesn't know what's going on.
- Next entry. Naomi's dad has gone to the camps even though he's sick. Aunt Emily is worried about little Naomi. Is it normal if a baby doesn't talk or cry or smile?
- Now a letter from Uncle Sam. He's at a men's work camp and all the men they are desperate to hear about their families. He cried when he arrived there.
- The family is still trying to get out; they got an extension and are thinking about moving to a town in Alberta. Stephen's leg has been put in a cast and Grandma Nakane isn't doing too well.
- On May 1 they have 24 hours to get out. From now on Aunt Emily's letters/diary entries seem frantic. Grandpa Kato is going numb. People are moving all over the place, trying to get out before the time's up.
- Oh and by the way, Obasan's house has been looted. Yeah, the one full of everything she's ever owned. All that is gone.
- May 5. Naomi's father sends a letter asking about Stephen's music lessons. That would be sweet if he weren't ill and in a work camp. Since he is, it's weird.
- Just nine days later they decide on a town called Slocan. It's a ghost town, but at least they know Rev. Nakayama and it should be safe there. Aunt Emily has resigned herself to living in the middle of nowhere. But at least they'll be together.
- Or not. May 18, 1942. The permit to go to Slocan was only for the Kato family. Meaning only Aunt Emily, and not everyone else. When Aunt Emily talks to Obasan and Grandpa Kato about it, Obasan says that Naomi and Stephen should be with her. So they decide that the permit should be transferred to Obasan. The family is going to be split up.
- Aunt Emily spends the next couple of days packing and cleaning.
- May 21 is the final entry in the journal. It's the day before Naomi, Stephen, and Obasan get on a train to Slocan. They won't see Aunt Emily for 12 years.
- Whew. That was a long chapter.
- Another dream. Naomi is not sure if she's in a waiting room, a tunnel, or train.
- The family leaves for Slocan by train. Naomi is resting her head in Obasan's lap, and in the seat behind them is a boy with a cat that keeps mewing. A few seats ahead of them is a young woman with a premature baby. She doesn't even have diapers for him. Obasan makes Naomi gives the woman an orange for the baby and another old lady gives the woman her underskirt . It's not much, but at least she can have a diaper.
- This is boring. Naomi would rather play with her dolls. She has a baby doll and a traditional Japanese Kokeshi that her mother gave her before she left. Naomi pretends that she's the doll, playing by herself. Eventually she falls asleep in Obasan's lap.
- Fast-forward twenty years. The whole family is taking a road trip through the interior of British Columbia. They drive through the same ghost towns that they had once lived in, and realize that there's no evidence that they had ever lived there. Every trace of their existence had been erased.
- Back in Slocan 1942, everyone is getting off the train. An old man helps the family with their luggage, unloading luggage from the cargo. They meet Nakayama-sensei at the station and it's nice to see a familiar face. He promises to lead them to their new home. On the way there, they cross a large bridge. That's when Naomi realizes that she's forgotten her doll. The old man promises to find it for her.
- Stephen has already run ahead, and when Naomi runs to join him he shows her their new home. It looks more like a hovel. When the adults enter the house, it's clear that this isn't what they expected but they try to keep it together for the sake of the children.
- The adults start praying, so Stephen and Naomi go back outside. There are a bunch of brown winged butterflies in the grass. Stephen kills all of them, whacking them with his crutches. It's a pretty shocking scene. He explains why he kills them; they're moths. Or at least he thinks so.
- A house is a house. Their tiny new home is filled with improvised furniture. Stephen and Naomi sleep on bunk beds, and Obasan shares a room with Nomura-obasan, an older woman. She uses a bedpan, and normally Obasan helps her go to the bathroom, but one day Obasan is out. So Nomura-obasan asks Naomi for help, but since she can't find the bedpan, Naomi takes her to the outhouse.
- When Obasan sees them like this, she drops everything. She carries Nomura-obasan home on her shoulders. Meanwhile, Stephen is busy playing his mother's favorite songs over and over again on an antique record player. He doesn't even try to help.
- In one of Stephen's books, Naomi learns the story of Goldilocks. Maybe Naomi's really Goldilocks. Maybe she'll find her way home. But no matter how much she wants to go home, they never go back. And the old man never did find her doll.
- Grandma Nakane is dead. Naomi doesn't quite understand what dead means, or how that can be true. She just saw Grandma and Grandpa Nakane a couple of weeks ago. How could she be dead?
- At the wake, people come and give Obasan money. Then at the funeral Naomi entertains herself by drawing while Stephen is being his regular grumpy self. Grandma Nakane's body will be cremated because she's Buddhist, unlike Obasan and Uncle Sam.
- Several men build a pyre and Obasan watches until the coffin catches on fire. Naomi just wonders who could survive such heat.
- After the cremation Obasan picks up the bones and ashes and sends them to Grandpa Nakane.
- There is good news. Uncle is coming home. And Stephen will have his cast removed. And…oh wait, no, that's all.
- In all the excitement they reorganize the tiny little house to fit more people and Obasan makes miso soup for dinner. Stephen is annoyingly impatient to see Uncle, so it's no surprise that he's the first one to welcome him home.
- You might think Obasan would jump all over her husband after not seeing him for so long. You'd be wrong. She only says welcome home.
- Uncle has brought gifts: the flutes! Stephen is so excited that he lunges for them and starts playing immediately. After a while Obasan says it's time to eat.
- In the next couple of weeks everything in the house changes. There are new bright wallpaper covers and it starts to look more like a home than a hovel. Stephen even gets his cast removed. But even when his leg is still weak, he wants to run. Typical.
- This whole time Naomi and Stephen have not gone to school. Some of the other kids go to Japanese classes, but Uncle Sam doesn't think it's a good idea to seem too foreign. Stephen and Naomi don't mind.
- Stephen enjoys running around without his cast. It's springtime now and all of the nature in Slocan is bursting into life, a perfect time for Stephen and Naomi to play. They go out into the forest to find mountain vegetables for dinner.
- By June they have been attending school for one month. It's a Japanese-only school, and they have made some friends. A boy named Kenji, and a girl named Miyuki. Miyuki is shy but Kenji seems aggressive because he takes a stone and throws it off of a cliff so that it will hit a chicken coop. Together, the four children make their way up to the highest lookout point in Slocan. From way up there the houses in the town look tiny.
- They see a large object fall into the forest, and Kenji immediately says it has to be the Kingbird. What's the Kingbird? We don't know, but apparently it cuts off your tongue when you lie. This freaks Naomi out enough that she spends the afternoon thinking about it and even dreams of the Kingbird coming for her.
- For some reason, Naomi is still hanging out with this Kenji kid. We don't think this is a good idea. They are alone this time, and near a beach. Kenji is paddling on a log raft, but Naomi isn't supposed to play on rafts since she can't swim. Do you feel danger? We do.
- She and Kenji are making sand castles and picking weeds. You know, kid stuff. Then suddenly Rough Lock Bill appears: tall, skinny, and he definitely isn't from the city. It almost seems like he's a character from one of those old tall tales.
- Bill tells Kenji and Naomi a story. It's about a Native American child whose tribe is dying. He goes in search of a new place to live, and after a while finds Slocan. It's perfect. So he goes back to his home and tells everyone to start moving. It takes a long time to get there. But he says you can get there if you go slow. Get it? Slocan. Slow can go. That's how Slocan got its name.
- After the story Bill goes back to his porch and sits in his rocking chair. We guess he's tuckered out.
- Left alone, Kenji starts playing in the water again. He encourages Naomi to come play with him, but the raft drifts far away from the shore. Kenji falls into the water, but at least he can swim. Naomi , if you remember, isn't so lucky. The raft goes over a drop-off and when Kenji realizes, he runs away.
- There is nothing for Naomi to do but jump. You should read this section, because it really gives you the feeling of being a little girl afraid of drowning in a river. The next thing that Naomi knows, she's on the shore. Bill saved her.
- Naomi is in a hospital. Well, she's dreaming she's in a hospital. But she's also really in a hospital.
- In the hospital, the nurse brushes her hair so roughly that it hurts. She thinks about fairytales in order to endure the pain. Stephen tells her that their dad is sick and she worries that he will die. But only old people die, right?
- She thinks about chickens. They remind her of the yellow peril, and being yellow is to be weak and small, like the chicks that were pecked to death. Death comes in many places, she thinks. She saw it just a week ago.
- She and Stephen are walking to school. Some white boys come and try to bully Stephen, but one of the missionaries stops the bullying and they keep walking. Then Stephen sees something not far from school that makes him run away.
- There is a circle of boys standing around something, but all Naomi can see are feathers and hands. One of the boys, Sho, is killing a chicken. Why, we have no idea. It's pretty gruesome.
- The bell rings before they can finish killing the chicken. Most of the kids run to class, but Sho stays behind to make sure it is really dead. The class sings "O Canada", but Sho doesn't. Naomi doesn't either.
- Naomi hates school. She hates where the chicken was killed. She hates where the white kids bully her. And she hates where a strange girl killed her kitten in a well.
- All of these episodes become part of her dream. It is pretty gross, so read at your discretion, but let's just say there's a lot of death involved.
- When Naomi comes home from the hospital, Nomura-obasan is gone. She's moved back in with her family. Naomi takes advantage of the new space to read two children's books in bed all day long.
- The rest of the summer passes by in a blur. By fall Slocan is a thriving town. It even has its own public Japanese bath, where the whole town becomes one big family. It's a happy memory.
- Except for one night. Naomi and Obasan head to the public bath later than usual. When they get there, they meet Nomura-obasan and Naomi's classmates bathing in the lukewarm water. She tries to play with them, but a woman keeps telling them not to. She has no idea what's going on.
- Even though normally the bathhouse is full of noise and excitement, today it's dead silent. It isn't until later when Naomi, Obasan, and Nomura-obasan leave the bathhouse that she knows why. According to them, she has tuberculosis. Her whole family does. That's why they've been ignoring her this whole time.
- Naomi runs home. She asks Uncle about tuberculosis but he doesn't tell her. He only says that some people are ashamed of being sick, but for other people it's just something sad.
- Months later Naomi wakes up to the sound of a rooster. Yesterday, Stephen was running around yelling that they had won the war. He made the V for victory sign and hung a Union Jack on the house. There's no question what side he's on.
- Today there is no shouting, just the sound of Obasan in the kitchen. Stephen has some hair on the windowsill that his music teacher told him would turn into snakes. Seriously, we don't know what that's about, but he keeps looking. Adults don't lie, right?
- It's early in the morning but Naomi gets up to go to the bathroom. When she comes back, she notices something is strange. Someone is lying where Nomura-obasan used to sleep. Who is it?
- It's her dad. This whole scene is pretty heartwarming. Finally, happy times. When Stephen realizes that his dad's home, it turns into a party. There's music, dancing, and the whole nine yards.
- At least until Obasan decides it is time to eat.
- Of course that happiness can't last too long. Bad news. They have to move again, and not back home.
- Just as soon as the family has been reunited, it's torn apart again. Obasan starts packing. Naomi's father and Uncle Sam get two different letters, saying that they must move to two different places.
- Nakayama-sensei comes and prays with everyone before they leave. He even gives them the holy Communion. While everyone is praying, Stephen sits on the edge of the box and breaks something. It's his mom's favorite record. For the rest of the prayer, Naomi's father holds Stephen close because those records are his most treasured possessions.
- Everyone starts to sing now, a song called "Till we meet God be with us." People start to cry, but Nakayama-sensei tells them that there will be happy days ahead. We're not so sure, but it's a nice thought.
- Everyone arrived in Slocan on the same day, and now everyone is leaving. The whole town is being packed up. Everyone comes to say their goodbyes, but Naomi only has questions. Where is her dad? Where is she going? Remember home?
- There are no answers. Just the sound of the train leaving Slocan.
- The papers of Aunt Emily's package are piled neatly. Naomi doesn't know if she wants to read them anymore.
- In present time it's Thursday. Aunt Emily and Stephen will be here soon. Obasan is tired, and keeps falling asleep. Naomi is tired too, tired of all the memories that appear because of Aunt Emily's letters.
- Naomi says that the relocation destroyed families that had already been splintered. The Undersecretary of State for External Affairs, Norman Robertson says that the Canadians screwed up the whole Japanese Canadian thing. No duh.
- Families were torn apart. Some people just disappeared. Naomi reads a newspaper article that says repatriating Japanese Canadians were "solemn," and "indifferent." Somehow, we are doubtful.
- When Naomi asks Aunt Emily what she thinks happened to her mother and grandmother. Suddenly, she's lost for words. Instead of talking about that, Aunt Emily tells her about Nakayama-sensei's crusade to keep the community together. He wasn't the only one. All over the country there are people trying to form a Japanese Canadian community.
- Naomi compares all of this effort to create a community to the scratching of chickens. It's useless. They don't do anything. They don't change the past or the future.
- Naomi is in a city. To be precise, she's in a sketchy restaurant where two unshaven men keep trying to beckon her towards them with some crumpled up bills. Totally sketchy. Uncle talks to a man, and after that they leave the city and go further out into the country. Eventually they don't even travel on a paved road.
- She asks where they're going, but there are no answers.
- When they finally stop, they are in front of a small hut even smaller than the tiny home in Slocan. There is brown dust and wind everywhere.
- Uncle and Stephen unload the truck, and Naomi checks out the house. There isn't much to check out because there's only one room, one door, and two windows. That's it. They sleep on the floor lined up together with cloths over their faces so that they don't breathe in dust. In the morning they clean the dust off the furniture.
- Aunt Emily's package has a newspaper clipping. It says that the evacuees on sugar beet farms, like Naomi and her family, are grinning and happy. Good joke.
- Even though things sucked in Slocan, they weren't like this. Hard work, no food, a tiny house infested with bugs and covered in dirt. We are pretty sure she wasn't grinning and happy.
- You should read this chapter, just to see how the family goes from living like humans in Slocan, to basically living like animals on the farm in Granton. They don't see anyone else, or do anything else besides harvest beets. Naomi says that they have become machines.
- On April Fools' Day 1949, they are finally allowed to go home.
- Looking back on everything, Naomi wonders what's the point of Aunt Emily's effort. People are bad. Won't they always be bad?
- The years on the sugar beet farm are barely real to Naomi. She hears that Grandpa Nakane died the day before they left Slocan, and the last letter they receive from her sick father is about a suspicious doctor.
- The sadness doesn't stop there. In the summer it's so hot that Naomi gets dizzy. Sometimes she hides in the root cellar, but the stench of rotting potatoes is unbearable.
- The students at the new school make fun of Naomi and Stephen. All of the Japanese children are given short names, because their names are too difficult to pronounce. Math is easier at the new school. Spelling is harder.
- Stephen starts to play music again, and it looks like he's developing a gaggle of groupies. For two years in a row he wins second place on the radio talent show. People are proud of him. Naomi, on the other hand, is a disappointment.
- On Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, the family travels seventy miles to visit Nakayama-sensei. Some days Nakayama-sensei comes to visit, riding on his bicycle along the dirt path. He even works in the fields with them sometimes.
- Naomi likes to go to the swamp. She stares at the insects flitting above the water in silence, trying not to disturb them. Once Stephen comes and catches her watching a tiny frog with a broken leg.
- Naomi wants to keep looking at the frog, but Stephen tells her she has to come home. Nakayama-sensei is visiting. So she just takes the frog with her. She decides that she'll call the frog Tad, after her dad and after the frog Prince.
- Uncle Sam actually lets her keep Tad. She makes a perfect home for it in a little glass bowl. Every day for the next week she feeds the frog. Sometimes big flies, sometimes small flies. Stephen suggests meat and the frog seems to like it. Every day the frog gets better and better until one day the bowl is empty.
- Naomi's last letter to her father never got a reply.
- It's not until she's talking to her friend Penny Barker that Naomi acknowledges that her father is dead. The words don't sound right in her mouth. This happens after they move out of the hut.
- In 1951 the family moves from the hut into a house in the town. There is no water, and no bathroom, but at least it's a house and way bigger than the hut they used to live in. Now that they live in town, Stephen practices music even more than before. He's also getting popular with the ladies.
- When Penny comes over to their new house, Naomi shows her the picture with the whole family celebrating Stephen's birth. She points to her father, but Penny says that doesn't look like her father. That's when Naomi tells her that her father is dead. That's also when Naomi gets a terrible stomachache.
- No one knows what happened to Naomi's mom and Grandma Kato. Nakayama-sensei was the first Japanese Canadian to visit Japan after the war, but he couldn't find out anything. The family just assumes that they are dead.
- Even though everyone else has accepted that they are dead, Naomi still imagines that they live somewhere. They just have memory loss. Of course, she doesn't tell this to anyone.
- Or at least people say they don't know. There are two strange letters in Aunt Emily's parcel. They seem to imply that she was in touch with Naomi's mom. What's up with that?
- In 1954 Stephen has been away for two years at the Royal Conservatory of Music. When he turns 20 he tours Europe playing music, and wins first prize for an original piano composition. Even though he's famous now, he doesn't let it go to his head. He's actually less angry now, or at least when he's not around Obasan.
- Stephen lives with Aunt Emily, and it's been such a long time since Naomi saw her that she forgot what she was like.
- Aunt Emily comes to visit in July. She's 40 and still not married. They take her on a tour of all of their favorite shops. The family talks about the old days, like when Stephen used to like eating Ex-Lax. Good times/gross times.
- When they get home Obasan is waiting. She's wearing a pretty white and blue dress, just for Aunt Emily. Naomi doesn't remember much else about the week that Aunt Emily stays with them because she's busy studying for finals.
- On the night before Aunt Emily leaves, Naomi wakes up to hear Uncle and Emily talking about her mother. What are they saying? Aunt Emily is crying and Obasan is praying. She tucks some papers into a gray cardboard folder with red string. Hey, haven't we seen that before?
- We totally have seen this gray cardboard folder with a red string.
- Actually, Obasan was reading it this afternoon. She reads it over and over again, but she doesn't tell Naomi what's written. Then the doorbell rings. It's the farmer that owned the sugar beet farm, Mr. Barker. He comes in with his new wife (Vivian) to say his condolences, but the whole thing is just really awkward.
- Vivian is obviously uncomfortable. Her husband asks about Stephen, like everyone else does, but Naomi doesn't have much news to give him. The last time he was home, he came with a French divorcée and split. He obviously couldn't wait to get the heck out of there. Just like Vivian.
- Naomi is walking on eggshells, trying not to offend her. Maybe it works. Maybe not.
- The farmer talks about Uncle Sam and how he was a fisherman. He says that there are lots of fishermen buried in the prairies. "Our Japanese," he says. Naomi notices this micro-aggression and pisses her off. It reminds her of how despite all arguments to the contrary, she is Canadian.
- While Naomi is having an identity crisis, Obasan is calm. She just serves tea.
- Naomi is having a nightmare. There are soldiers with weapons ready for murder. Her mother is there, dancing the flower ceremony when a man appears and rips her head apart.
- Her mother is dancing the dance of love, but the man keeps trying to kill her. Naomi wonders, why does she keep asking questions? Why did she need to know? That she doubts her mother's love?
- Naomi decides that now is not the time for all of these questions. There should be peace at least for one week. For the sake of Obasan.
- When Obasan wakes up, she reads the letters again. What is she reading?
- Naomi is washing all of the stained cups and plates in Obasan's house when Nakayama-sensei comes in. Aunt Emily and Stephen are right behind him. Stephen has gotten older: his hair is white and he's gotten fatter. But he's still the same old Stephen.
- Nakayama-sensei has discovered something. He's reading the papers that Obasan has been reading all day and for some reason it makes him want to pray. Naomi and Stephen don't seem to be very interested in praying, but Aunt Emily at least tries.
- Now Nakayama-sensei drops a bomb on us. When he realizes that Stephen and Naomi don't know about the letters, he says that it's time to know. Aunt Emily explains that she never told them because Naomi's mother made her promise it would be a secret. Well, they're old enough now. They should know.
- The letters were written during the war by Grandma Kato. Nakayama-sensei reads them aloud and tells Naomi and Stephen to listen closely.
- There are two letters. The first one says that Grandma Kato, her niece's daughter, and Naomi's mother are the only ones alive in the family.
- Then there is the second letter. It begins with black flames, and maggots crawling in the sockets of her niece's eyes. Guys, it is gonna get way worse from here.
- The letters came before all communication was cut off. By this time Naomi's great-grandmother was feeling much better and even walking around outside. She didn't need Naomi's mom or grandmother anymore.
- Nakayama-sensei is unsure if he should continue, so he asks Stephen. He says to go ahead.
- Grandma's niece just had a baby in Nagasaki, so she decided to leave Tokyo and help her. Everything was going great at her mom's place, so she wasn't sad to go. That would change. Grandma's sister, mother, and brother-in-law all died the next day, in the March 9, 1945, bombings.
- Grandma explains that she doesn't want to talk about what happened in Nagasaki, but she can't bear it anymore. So here is the letter. Naomi's mom, on the other hand, wanted to keep it a secret until her grave. And she did.
- August 9 is a normal day. Then there is a flash in the sky. Grandma is thrown against the wall and there is heat, blood, and voices. By the time that she gets out of the wreckage, Nagasaki looks like an alien world. All the buildings are flat. Everything is on fire. It gets worse, but you really should read this because it really explains the horror of living through the Nagasaki bombing.
- Grandma wanders the streets looking for Naomi's mom. One day she comes across a naked woman who is cremating a dead baby. Her nose and cheeks are gone, and maggots wriggle in her wounds. It's Naomi's mom.
- The doctors thought that she would die, but Mother survives. The niece's daughter is dying of leukemia. That's the end of the letter.
- What happens after that? We don't know.
- Nakayama-sensei puts the letter back into its envelope. He tries to be comforting, but everyone is pretty shaken by what they've just heard. He prays, but Naomi is not listening. She's trying to think about her mother.
- Naomi learns that a maple tree grows on Naomi's mother's burial site. She doesn't take any pictures after the bombing. She doesn't want them to see her like that.
- Naomi imagines her mother's skin bubbling off of her bones. She thinks about the silence of her suffering. About how Grandma sends letters to Grandpa, who gives them to Aunt Emily, who tells Uncle Sam and Obasan, who tell no one. All Naomi remembers of her mom is an old picture...
- Nakayama-sensei is still praying. He prays for love. Obasan prays too, for soothing and comfort. Maybe it works, because even though her mother isn't there, Naomi feels her presence. She feels her love.
- Naomi hasn't slept all night. It's five in the morning. Obasan hasn't been able to go to sleep either, and instead she keeps looking at Uncle's ID card. For the first time Obasan is emotional. She rocks back and forth like a child.
- There is grief, Naomi says, but the grief is not forever.
- Naomi sneaks out of the house. She takes Aunt Emily's jacket with her and goes to Uncle's valley. At the bottom of the valley she looks up at the moon. Naomi remembers Uncle saying that it's just like the sea and watches the wildflowers along the stream. If she holds her head just right, she can smell them.