The novel opens when Naomi, who is currently a schoolteacher in Canada in the 1970s, learns about the death of her uncle. She rushes home for the funeral and to make sure that her Obasan (aunt) is okay. When she sees Obasan, who appears frail and lost, Naomi has flashbacks to her childhood during WWII and begins to confront a past which she has tried to forget.
While she was growing up, Naomi lived with Obasan and her uncle because her mother had gone to Japan to care for a family member before the war began and had been stranded there. Naomi never heard from her again, and only as an adult discovered her fate. Meanwhile, Naomi’s father suffered from tuberculosis and spent a great deal of time in the hospital. Naomi and her family were relocated twice as the war progressed and separated from members of their extended family, who had formerly provided a crucial support system. They faced institutionalized racism while attempting to be patriotic, often repeating “But we are Canadians!”
One of the major themes that ran through the book was that even after the war ended, the people who were persecuted during WWII weren’t just able to pick back up their former lives. Their homes had been occupied by other people and their careers were irreparably damaged, not to mention the emotional distress that they faced. Many people who had frail health at the start of the war didn’t survive. Others, such as Naomi’s brother Stephen, internalized the racism and became ashamed of their own culture.
This book also contains one of the more graphic accounts of the bombing of Nagasaki that I’ve read to this day. It’s toward the end of the book, and is probably best read on an empty stomach.
As with most of the books that I read for my multicultural librarianship class, this was incredibly depressing, but at the same time it is important to remember history, lest we repeat it. I think that I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I had read it when I was in high school, because at that point in my life I didn’t mind depressing books so much, and I read a lot of books about injustices throughout history.
Kogawa’s writing is quite poetic, and uses vivid imagery to portray complex themes of identity, loss, tolerance, and coping. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about an often-forgotten part of WWII.