Literature Study GuidesObasanChapters 28 30 Summary

Obasan | Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

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Obasan | Chapters 28–30 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 28

It is 1945. Naomi, Stephen, Obasan, and Uncle arrive in Lethbridge, Alberta. It is an unattractive, dust-filled town that Naomi describes as "the edge of the world ... a place of angry air." They are taken by truck to a farm in Granton that is owned by the Barker family. There they are told to unload their belongings in a small hut. The hut—actually a former chicken coop—contains only a round stove, a broom, and some rags. Thick brown dust covers everything.

Chapter 29

A newspaper article in Emily's folders describes how Japanese evacuees make up 65 percent of the labor force that works on the beet farms in Alberta. Along with German POWs who are also forced to work on the farms, they have helped Alberta deliver a record crop of beets. They are considered very efficient beet workers, and the newspaper reports they are happy with their lives.

The adult Naomi becomes furious as she reads the article and wishes her Aunt Emily's papers would stop exhuming her buried past. She recalls her family's time on the beet farm as the worst years of her life, and her memories are filled with images harsh labor, swarms of black flies, and endless dust. The entire family suffers from the cold and the lack of resources. Their crates remain unpacked, their clothes become threadbare, and in their exhaustion, they barely speak to each other. After three years of this, an announcement comes from the government that Canadians of Japanese origin who were expelled from British Columbia will not be allowed to return home for another year. Some politicians try to fight the new restrictions, pointing out that that it is racism, not security, that is behind the latest decree. But they fail to change the minds of their colleagues, and Naomi bitterly comments that similar events will happen again, "over and over with different faces and names, variations on the same theme."

Chapter 30

The family still has no word from Naomi's mother, but Father sends word that Grandpa Nakane has died of a heart attack. They also hear that Father himself has had an operation from which he has been unable to recover. Naomi thinks that "something dead is happening" to all of them. Even school does not provide relief from the misery that Naomi experiences. She is instead the target of cruel remarks by the white children. On the other hand, Stephen gets permission to play the piano in the auditorium, and he practices whenever he can. He attracts the attention of the music teacher, who coaches him, and eventually comes in second in on a radio talent contest two years in a row. His musicianship and intelligence make him the pride of Granton.

Analysis

With their exile to the beet farm, the Nakanes and families like them are finally beaten down by their situation. There is no hopeful talk, no optimism, and no laughter. Obasan, Naomi says, "turn[s] to stone." Over the course of a few years, they have moved from a beautiful home in Vancouver to a hut in Alberta, and have been transformed from respected, educated citizens to laborers in a beet field. Also, unlike the situation in Slocan, the evacuees are not near each other and so are unable to form communities. This means they have lost their last sources of comfort and support. Finally, readers can infer at this point that the family will never return home, since Granton is where they were living when Uncle died.

The contrast between these chapters and those that took place in Slocan is striking. In Slocan, there were still moments of happiness and beauty. There was pride as well, with the Japanese community turning a ghost town into a vibrant community. The postwar dispersal, however, seems calculated to destroy any sense of community, optimism, and hope that the evacuees had managed to retain. Symbols of this despair are visible through the chapters: in the brown dust that coats everything, in the unopened crates that the family does not have the energy or motivation to open, and in the literal and figurative thistles that tear at them physically in the fields, and emotionally through the cruelty of the townspeople.

Chapter 29 in particular is notable for the fury these memories release in Naomi. Her anger is directed not only at the government, but at her Aunt Emily. Emily and those like her, Naomi feels, will never comprehend the horror of those years on the farm. And unlike Emily, Naomi feels that the degradation experienced by Japanese Canadians will repeat endlessly in nations around the world, because "greed, selfishness, and hatred remain as constant as the human condition." Her words are a battle cry of cynicism. The one flicker of hope, surprisingly, comes from Stephen. His music and intelligence are raising him out of the squalor, implying that there can indeed be an "after" for those who have been persecuted.

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