Naomi Nakane visits her elderly aunt after the death of her uncle and learns of the plight of Japanese Americans throughout the early and mid 20th century. Naomi Nakane is a teacher in Canada, the daughter of Japanese immigrants. When her favorite Uncle dies, she recalls their yearly visits to Alberta. She leaves the tiny town where she teaches to care for Aya, her widowed Aunt. She refers to the older woman as "Obason", the Japanese word for "Aunt". When she arrives, Obason takes her in and feeds her very hard, dry homemade bread. Then she takes her to the attic to look through the stuff Uncle (his name in the book) left behind. Naomi learns of her Aunt Emily's political work on behalf of Japanese Canadians. She remembers happy times from her childhood in Canada, but her memories are darkened when she recalls the disappearance of her mother in 1941. Naomi's mother returned to Japan to visit her own ailing mother but was never to return. The family never learned what happened to her. Saddened, she recalls her brother Stephen enduring racial bullying during school and the unlawful imprisonment of her Grandfather at about the same time.
Digging through the family relics, Naomi learns details about the plight of Japanese-Canadians following during and following World War II. Many of the families she knew as a child were taken to labor camps because of their association with the enemy nation. To avoid this fate, Obason took Naomi and Stephen to live in an isolated hut in the woods to wait out the terrible time. Many of these details had eluded Naomi as a child. While reading, she learns that her own grandmother had endured one of these camps.
Naomi recalls an episode while living as a child in the little house in the woods. Uncle had just joined the family in the hut. She and another refugee boy, Kenji, rafted out into a lake, but were carried out farther than they could return by paddling. Kenji left Naomi even though she couldn't swim. Naomi panicked and jumped into the water even though her swimming was poor. She was rescued by a man named Rough Lock who chanced upon her in the woods. She awoke in the hospital. Despite her exposure to the outside world in the hospital, Naomi is not detained and does not give away her family who are still in hiding. The family waits out the war, but they have to take up residence in another town, away from Naomi's childhood home.
Naomi recalls working as a farmhand with her mother and brother until Japanese are allowed to return to major Canadian cities in 1949. While on the farm, the family lived in a disused chicken coop. Upon returning, they had some success in normal society, Stephen going on to attend conservatory and continue as a successful pianist.
In a series of letters and conversations with family members, Naomi learns that her mother disappeared years before because she was caught in the bombing of Nagasaki. She survived, but was terribly disfigured. Her grandmother's writing describes finding her maimed and infested with maggots. She lived but never returned to her family because of the shame. Naomo experiences closure with this knowledge and leaves to return to the site she used to visit with her uncle.
Best part of story, including ending:
This is a very didactic novel in that it is meant to tell the historical experience of an entire people through a few characters. I like and dislike this method. It is educational, but it makes the drama seem forced.
Best scene in story:
I was glad to finally learn what happened to Naomi's mother. Her injury was gruesome, not something you normally hear about from an American portrayal of the bombings at Nagasaki.
Opinion about the main character:
Naomi wasn't much of a character, really. She just served to narrate all these different scenes.
This story is narrated by Naomi, a sheltered and pampered child who is five years old when her life is drastically changed by the events at Pearl Harbor and the Second World War. As a Japanese Canadian, Naomi is separated from her parents, persecuted and eventually placed in an internment camp – common practice in Canada during WWII. The one bright spot in Naomi's life is her Aunt Obasan, her protector and caregiver after she is separated from her parents.
It is only after Naomi grows up that she is able to face the hardship of her past. This novel is a striking account of one of the worst manifestations of racism in Canada's history.
The review of this Book prepared by Jennifer Selk