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Obasan | Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

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Obasan | Chapters 16–18 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 16

The action shifts forward twenty years, to 1962. At Aunt Emily's urging, she, Uncle, Obasan, and Naomi are on a trip to the interior of British Columbia. Emily wants to see the sites of the internment camps and ghost towns where Japanese Canadians had been forced to live for so many years. They find that although reminders of the prospectors who first inhabited the area are visible, there is no hint of the Japanese Canadian communities. Naomi remembers the two-room log hut where her family lived, and the story shifts back to the moment they came to Slocan.

Naomi recalls arriving in the town and being greeted by Nakayama-sensei, the minister from their old church in Vancouver. He and another man, called Ojisan, help get the family settled. Naomi remembers crossing the bridge to the two-room shack that was to be their home, and she sees that it is gray and shabby. The adults comfort each other, saying that as long as they have life and health, they are grateful and will help each other through these difficult times. Naomi realizes she has lost the doll her mother gave her while crossing the bridge. Ojisan says he will find it for her. Later, Naomi and Stephen go outside where they see dozens of beautiful golden butterflies dancing in the air. Stephen viciously attacks them with his crutch, saying that they eat holes in clothes.

Chapter 17

Days pass and Obasan and the children slowly adjust to their new home. Obasan attempts to brighten the gray interior of the shack, which is more crowded now that they must share their home with an elderly invalid named Nomura. Obasan tenderly cares for the woman, whom they call Nomura-obasan, emptying her bedpan and providing comfort. One day when Obasan is not around, Nomura asks for the bedpan. Naomi cannot find it, and Stephen refuses to help her, hovering instead over his prized record player and the records labeled "property of Mrs. K. Nakane." Naomi helps the frail Nomura to a foul-smelling outhouse, returning just as Obasan reappears and gently takes over. Naomi keeps dreaming of home, but nothing changes and she stops asking if Ojisan has found her doll.

Chapter 18

While they are standing on the little bridge "where sad thoughts come," Obasan tells Naomi that Grandma Nakane has died. She and Grandpa Nakane had arrived in Slocan just a few weeks earlier and had immediately been taken to a hospital that was about an hour away. Obasan and Naomi had wanted the grandparents to stay in Slocan with them but agreed "we must always honor the wishes of others before our own," saying that good people make the way smooth for others by hiding their own emotions.

The wake for Grandma is held in a public hall, but Stephen refuses to attend. The next day is the funeral, which is followed by the cremation of the body, a ritual that honors Grandma and Grandpa's Buddhist tradition. Obasan tells Stephen that "it is in the heat of fire where the angel is found," and that, just as samurai swords are tempered by flames, people are made stronger when they go through life's difficulties. Naomi notes that Stephen always scowls when she says things like this, and that his only comment on the cremation is that the fire will turn their grandmother into ashes.

Analysis

Once again, the author focuses on how different individuals respond to adversity. Obasan and the other elders remain grateful for their life and health and refuse to give in to anger or sorrow. They also concentrate on doing all that they can to make each other's lives a bit better. Obasan herself is the epitome of this attitude. She is devoted to the children, but she still welcomes an elderly invalid into their home and treats the woman with tenderness and respect. She even tries to beautify their little shack, adding bits of color that become symbols of her optimism and hope.

Stephen, on the other hand, refuses to find comfort in the past, resists the platitudes of his elders, and cannot see past his anger. He is broken emotionally as well as physically. Where Obasan sees the potential for a decent life in their shack, Stephen sees only the cow manure and grass that the roof is made from. While Naomi is thrilled by a beautiful cluster of golden butterflies, Stephen sees insects that eat clothes, and he smashes as many of them as possible with his crutch. And although the elders can see beauty even in death, Stephen refuses to attend the wake and sees cremation only as fire turning his grandmother to ash. He also makes no attempt to hide his emotions. He obsessively plays his mother's records and puts his resentment and sullen attitude on full display. Further, he tries to convince Naomi to see the world through his eyes, something that to this point she has been able to resist.

Naomi, in fact, seems to be absorbing more from Obasan than from her brother. She displays Obasan's kindness when she cares for Nomura, and shows a certain amount of maturity when she stops asking after her doll. She also seems to internalize Obasan's teachings that she must honor the wishes of others before focusing on her own. And although she feels somewhat lost and still wishes to go home and be reunited with her mother, she tries to make the way smooth for others by hiding her own emotions. Her attitude, though, and the silence that accompanies it, may be what turned her into the unhappy, repressed adult she eventually becomes. This raises the question of whether Obasan's lessons were truly what Naomi and her brother needed, and whether silence is ultimately more courageous or destructive.

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