Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashi
One broken family grapples with loss in a novel that “sings out against all the bad in the world.”
Born in Japan and raised in Canada, Tamai Kobayashi is the author of two story collections whose vivid, electric prose has drawn praise from readers and critics alike. Prairie Ostrich is her debut novel, published in 2014, the same year she was awarded the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT writers.
Eight-year-old Egg Murakami lives on an ostrich farm with her parents and teenage sister, Kathy. It’s September 1974, six months after the death of the family’s oldest son Albert, and the Murakamis— the only Japanese-Canadian family in Bittercreek, Alberta—are still reeling with grief. Egg’s mother has slipped into a dark whiskey haze and her father has retreated to a cot in the ostrich barn. Egg only sees her father when she goes into the barn to help care for the ostriches, or to fetch his plate for dinner. Meanwhile, her mother’s presence in the house is more ghostly than nurturing, a woman lost in shadowy grief: “Her mother, smudged at the edges, is gone gone gone…. Gone like Albert.” Egg’s only support is her sister Kathy, an exasperated champion who sweeps in to rescue Egg from schoolyard bullies and holds together the jagged pieces of the Murakami family. Star of the basketball team, Kathy’s a popular kid who hates weakness and deals stoically with her own pain.
Egg, on the other hand, is as fragile and full of wonder as her name suggests, a bright but strange girl tormented by a bigoted classmate, and by her own inability to fit in. Egg often runs to the library to escape persecution, taking refuge in books, which help her understand life’s great and small tragedies. Well-meaning Kathy tries to protect Egg by reading aloud Egg’s favourite stories at night, but with a few changes: she reimagines happy endings for The Diary of Anne Frank and Charlotte’s Web. Egg understands from these stories that sacrifices must be made, but that ultimately good will triumph over evil.
Still, Egg can’t grasp the rhyme or reason for Albert’s accident. “How can Dead be forever?” she wonders. The end of Albert’s story is shrouded in mystery. The family never talks about what happened at the railroad tracks, or why nobody came to Albert’s funeral. But Egg overflows with questions about right and wrong and life and death, so she asks them at Sunday school, only to be ejected from the classroom, silenced once again. Egg must try to reach Albert in her own way, even as she struggles to survive the trials of second grade. A tiny, half-wild creature, she gets shoved into lockers and dumped head-first into a trash can, until Kathy rescues her. But Egg also protects Kathy, who’s in love with her best friend, Stacey. Every time Egg sees them together in an unguarded moment, she fears the worst if others are watching. She knows her sister could be run out of town, with taunts of “Jap-dyke” and calls to “Remember Romans and Leviticus” hot on her heels.
As a protagonist, Egg is easy to love, in part because her empathy is oceanic. She aches for her sister, the lonely librarian, the new classmate, the battered schoolteacher and even her own bully. Kobayashi depicts Egg’s inner world with a poetic brush, simultaneously evoking hilarity and anguish as she swings between social acceptance and what she calls “ostrichization.” Above all, Kobayashi lets readers experience all the crashing, accidental wonder of language as it bumps up against shared heartache. The author blends this deeply felt family portrait into the landscape of iconic ’70s pop culture and politics. Vietnam, Watergate, Japanese internment and indigenous persecution hover like spirits at the edges of this tragedy. Egg must struggle to dispel the darkness with a light of her own.
With a writing style that combines the playful curiosity of a precocious child and the nimble wordplay of a seasoned writer, Kobayashi challenges us to look straight into the violent heart of prejudice and still find hope. None of the characters are purely good—even Egg, with her deeply generous heart, sometimes makes the wrong choice—while the cruelest characters can spark our sympathy, if only for a moment.
More by Tamai Kobayashi
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