‘Prairie Ostrich’ by Tamai Kobayashi

Book Reviews

Prairie Ostrich coverReviewed by Sarah Lynn Vaage

Prairie Ostrich is Tamai Kobayashi’s first novel. It is a family drama set in Bittercreek, Alberta in the mid 1970s. Alberta’s prairie landscape is brought to life with Kobayashi’s beautiful imagery and descriptive writing:

The last light of day slips away from the barren fields. The downfall wind that rolls east of the Rockies bristles and snaps, roaring unimpeded across the foothills. The seasons can change in one hour, a lazy drizzle that lashes into flurries.

The story follows seven-year-old Egg Murakami throughout the course of a school year as she tries to deal with internal family problems caused by the recent loss of Albert, Egg’s older brother. With a mother who has become an alcoholic because of the loss of her son, and a father who has isolated himself in his ostrich barn, Egg and her older sister Kathy, have to learn to deal with the stresses coming from their home life, and the outcomes of being the only Japanese-Canadian family in their area during the Vietnam war era.

Though Egg is only a child, she is a mature-minded, intelligent, and deep-thinking individual. One of the main themes that Kobayashi deals with is the existence of God and what his influence might be on people’s lives. Egg is troubled and confused by the religious dogma she is taught. “She writes in her notebook: If God knows everything, why doesn’t He do anything about the bad?” A young girl like Egg can’t understand the concept of a God that would take away her brother and let her family apart.

Her confusion and conflict over God only deepens when Raymond, one of Kathy’s friends, is chased out of church, and eventually the town, because he is gay. When Egg sees Raymond running out of the church she thinks “No. This is wrong. But wrong against God means she is the Devil.” Raymond was one of the people who was nice to Egg and she looked up to him, and the town’s treatment of him goes against everything she has been taught, and fuels the isolation she feels herself.

With so much disorder in her life, Egg uses literature and language to help her through troubled times. She uses the dictionary and stories such as fairy tales and myths to help her understand the world and the events that happen around her. “Sometimes the Dictionary is like a puzzle, going from word to word, like the thread in the Minotaur’s labyrinth. If you don’t know one word, you have to look up another, until the meaning is all unravelled.” This works only to an extent since it can’t explain the mystery of God or why her family is falling apart and eventually even words fail her too.

Even though she tries to be strong, Egg is still only a little girl who constantly yearns for her parents’ love and approval:

‘But I can help,’ Egg says. She doesn’t want to leave her Mama, not yet. … She looks sad and tired. For a moment, Egg wonders if she has done anything wrong. She wonders what Albert would have said.

Throughout the story, Egg tries to save her parents from their misery. All she wants is to feel wanted and loved again.

Despite her own problems, Egg is a selfless character who constantly tries to help others, like the new girl in her class, and the depressed librarian at her school, Evangeline. When Egg learns that her sister is considering leaving town after graduation, she does what she thinks is best:

[Egg] had saved all her allowance for this one gift. …Egg watches as her sister rolls the ball from hand to hand … Egg says ‘It’s for when the scout comes…’ She doesn’t add, ‘for when you go away.’

Kathy is Egg’s older sister. She takes on the role of mother and caregiver while caring for her little sister and drunken mother. Kathy is the one who goes to Egg’s parent-teacher conferences and buys her Christmas presents when their parents fail to do so. She tries to protect Egg from the harsh world when she can, for example from the bullies at school. Kathy reads Egg stories like The Diary of Anne Frank and Charlotte’s Web and changes the endings to happy ones in the hopes that Egg will take the hope and happiness from the stories and focus on the future instead of the death of their brother, and the downward spiral their parents have gone into.

The novel is written in third person but slanted to Egg’s point of view. Every chapter is titled month-by-month beginning in September, which makes the novel appear to be Egg’s diary entries. In seeing the world of Prairie Ostrich through Egg’s perspective, Kobayashi gives the story a youthful and innocent atmosphere. Lines such as “Jesus crucified on the hills of Calgary,” and “Our Father, whose Art in Heaven, hollow be thy name” charm the reader and show the naivety of young Egg, which is important to see still exists, even through all the hardships she must endure.

The stresses and pressure pile upon Egg until she reaches her breaking point. She learns that her sister, the one person she could always look up to and leans on, has lied to her, by making up endings to Charlotte’s Web, and The Diary of Anne Frank. She not only loses the characters that Egg had idolized, but loses trust in her sister as well. This leads to the climax of the story, which I won’t give away here.

Prairie Ostrich is an insightful story into the psychology of troubled families and the slow road to the recovery and re-connection of the family members. Kobayashi’s characters are believable. Though not all the conflicts are resolved at the end of the book, the reader can be content with the knowledge that Egg and Kathy will no longer be facing the world alone.

Goose Lane | 200 pages |  $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-0864926807



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Sarah Lynn Vaage

Sarah Lynn Vaage is a bachelor of arts student at the University of Winnipeg. There, she is working towards a major in English and Rhetoric and Communications. She plans to pursue a career in editing and publishing.