This quiet novel burns in your hand.
It seems at first to be a gentle growing-up story by a Canadian-born woman of Japanese ancestry. But there is a brooding undertone which grows as you learn the girl is one of thousands of Canadian citizens put into concentration camps after Pearl Harbor, their homes, land and property confiscated, families scattered, even the children reviled and ostracized. Still, after this, you realize there is something more, some deeper, darker secret: the whispers of relatives in the next room, the sudden silences, the evasions.
Where is Naomi's mother?
The little girl keeps asking, and nobody will tell her. Gradually, as the elliptic, elegantly spare story shifts back and forth in time, we learn that her mother had gone to visit Japan just before the war broke out. Then, at the end, as the grown daughter presses urgently to learn more, we grasp the shattering truth.
At the center of the book is Naomi's aunt Obasan, her guardian, who responds to the injustice and hardship by turning to stone, as Naomi says. Obasan cannot tell what happened, but she finally gives Naomi the box of letters and diaries in which another aunt, the activist Emily, has recorded the appalling saga of the Japanese-Canadians.
At least the United States let its interned Japanese-heritage people--many of them native-born American citizens--go back to what was left of their homes at the end of World War II. Clear up to 1949, Canada was still barring internees from returning to their Pacific Coast homes.
Emily, politicized by these events, speaks out where Obasan broods. Naomi says, "She told me that when the Fraser Valley flooded and the land that had once belonged to Japanese-Canadians was under water, there was a public outpouring of help to the farmers and residents of the area. 'We sent money,' she said, 'money to help the people who had taken our farms! I imagine we were hoping that it would show our good faith . . . We end up being despised twice as much and treated like cringing dogs.' "
After the war, the Canadian government urged internees to sign papers agreeing to emigrate to Japan. "Those who refused to sign were described as uncooperative and denied privileges," according to a government committee memo: The government then, having obtained these signatures through its own agents, claimed the signers were disloyal.
All these facts come out very gradually, interwoven with Naomi's story, the feelings and thoughts and nightmares of a small girl whose mother has gone away somewhere, who is moved from her home, and moved again, who lives with chaotic memories and time-dimmed snapshots:
"Uncle and Father as young men standing full front beside each other . . . One of Uncle's hands rested on the hull of an exquisitely detailed craft. It wasn't a fishing vessel or an ordinary yacht, but a sleek boat designed by Father, made over many years and many winter evenings. A work of art. 'What a beauty!' the RCMP officer said in 1941, when he saw it . . . That was the last Uncle saw of the boat. And shortly thereafter, Uncle too was taken away, wearing shirt, jacket and dungarees. He had no provisions nor did he have any idea where the gunboats were herding him and the other Japanese fishermen in the impounded fishing fleet."
From a sustained passage about life in the house of her childhood: "It is more splendid than any house I have lived in since. It does not bear remembering. None of this bears remembering. 'You have to remember,' Aunt Emily said. 'You are your history. Don't deny the past. Remember everything. If you're bitter, be bitter . . .' My bedroom with its long white-lace-curtained window looks out over the neighbor's yard. A peach tree is directly outside the window. Above my bed with the powdery blue patchwork quilt is a picture of a little girl with a book in her lap . . . If I linger in the longing, I am drawn into a whirlpool. I can only skirt the edges after all.
" 'This was a long time ago,' I say to Obasan, returning the photograph to her.
"The woman in the picture is frail and shy and the child is equally shy, unable to lift her head. Only fragments relate me to them now, to this young woman, my mother, and me, her infant daughter. Fragments of fragments. Parts of a house. Segments of stories . . ."
Rage mellows into sorrow; sorrow illumines love. It is love that you come away with, finally, in "Obasan."