Literature Study GuidesObasanChapters 19 21 Summary

Obasan | Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

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Obasan | Chapters 19–21 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 19

Soon after the first snowfall in Slocan, the family gets good news. First, Uncle Sam will be joining them. And second, Stephen's cast will finally come off. As usual, Obasan focuses on these two positive developments, cheerfully saying "When good things happen they come in a cluster."

When Uncle arrives, the mood of the little cabin changes dramatically. He brings with him a joyful energy and flutes for Stephen to play. He repairs everything that needs fixing, puts up shelving and wallpaper, and plants a garden. The one thing he does not bring is word of the children's father Mark. Naomi suspects that he knows where her father is but does not share the information.

Chapter 20

Throughout the winter, until they first attend school in May of 1943, Stephen and Naomi have no formal education. Japanese language classes are being held, but Obasan and Uncle feel it is not wise for the children to attend since officials are always looking for signs of disloyalty to Canada. The children enjoy their unscheduled time, and Naomi is able to appreciate the beauty of spring when it arrives and the majesty of the mountains.

Once school begins, Naomi thinks about how their school has only Japanese children—the white children in the town of Slocan go to a different school. Naomi and Stephen make friends with two other children, Kenji and Miyuki. They explore the surrounding area, and one day Kenji spots what he thinks is the King bird, which a man named Rough Lock Bill told them punishes liars by cutting their tongues in half. Kenji says that this is what happened to all of the other birds, which is why all they can do is tweet.

Chapter 21

The following week, Naomi plays with Kenji again. They go to the Slocan Lake, where Kenji plays on a log raft he found. While they are there, Rough Lock appears. He lives alone, the last of one of the native tribes from the area. Initially, Naomi is too shy to talk to him, and Rough Lock says that someone who doesn't speak isn't of much use. He then says he will tell them the story of how Slocan got its name, since he never met a child of any color who didn't like stories. A few generations before, the people of a native tribe were dying from an unknown disease. One of the braves found a beautiful area with all the resources then needed to become healthy again. Even though many members of the tribe were weak, he assured them that "if you go slow, you can go ... Slow can go." Slow-can-go is the real name of the settlement, Rough Lock says, eventually shortened to Slocan. His grandfather, he says, was a part of that tribe.

Kenji mentions that they saw the King bird, and Rough Lock recalls that story, as well, saying that since the King bird appeared, the mountain had grown silent, and there is little birdsong. But he goes on to say that smart people don't talk much in any case and that the natives had learned that from the King bird a long time ago.

Kenji and Naomi leave Rough Lock, and Kenji urges Naomi to join him on the raft. She is hesitant, but she finally lets herself be persuaded. They go far out into the lake, and then Kenji falls out of the water and loses the pole he has been guiding them with. He swims to shore, then turns and yells for Naomi to jump before the raft drifts off into the larger lake. That's when Naomi reveals she can't swim. Horrified by what he has done, Kenji runs off into the forest, and Naomi knows he will not return. With no choice left to her, she jumps into the water and quickly begins to sink and swallow water. Suddenly, Rough Lock is beside her, pulling her from the lake and pounding the water out of her lungs.

Analysis

Brief glimmers of happiness and hope appear in these chapters, suggesting that both the adults and the children are able to see past the ugliness of their situation. Uncle Sam in particular brings new life to their home, both figuratively and literally, as he repairs the house, plants a vegetable garden and delivers the flutes to Stephen. Even Stephen, finally released from his cast, takes joy in his renewed freedom and in the ability to play music again. The arrival of spring and the beauty of the mountains contribute to the sense of rebirth.

Still, there are shadows. Sam refuses to answer Naomi's questions about where her father is, perhaps protecting her but once again forcing her to live in ignorance. Rough Lock Bill shares the disturbing story of the King bird, which seems to reinforce the idea that it is better not to speak and call attention to oneself, something he said the natives learned long ago and that he repeats several times during the children's visit. Naomi's musings about how the choir of birds must have once made magnificent music until a catastrophe befell them becomes a metaphor for all persecuted people. Finally, the event at the lake with Kenji not only gives her a new understanding of death, but also her first personal experience with betrayal, when her friend deserts her. Only Rough Lock's presence saves her, just as the calm strength of so many individuals becomes a lifeline to those in need.

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