Summary: Chapter 1
9:05 p.m., August 9, 1972
The narrator, Naomi Nakane, and her Uncle Isamu go on their annual visit to the coulee (or ravine) near Granton in southern Alberta, Canada. Uncle blames his unsteady gait on his old age. As he crouches on the untouched land, Naomi muses that he looks like Chief Sitting Bull as depicted on a postcard of Alberta, a souvenir made in Japan.
She recalls the first visit she and Uncle made to the coulee, in 1954. Two months earlier, Naomi’s aunt, Emily, had visited Granton. Uncle had seemed upset since Emily’s departure, and visiting the coulee calmed him. Naomi, worried about snakes, wondered aloud if the coulee was dangerous. In response, Uncle asked how old she was. When she said she was eighteen, he smiled, told her she was too young, and said “someday.”
Now, at thirty-six, Naomi still doesn’t know what her Uncle thought she was too young to hear. She sits on the prairie grass next to Uncle and asks him why they come to the coulee every year, but he doesn’t answer. She takes his hand and asks again. He seems on the verge of saying something, but then he rubs at his face and shakes his head. Naomi goes to the bottom of the coulee to pick one flower, as she always does on these trips.
Summary: Chapter 2
September 13, 1972
It is the beginning of the school year in Cecil, Alberta. Naomi teaches a class of fifth- and sixth-graders. She has taught in this room for seven years. This year, her pupils include two “Native girls”; Tami, a lovely child who is half European and half Japanese; and Sigmund, whom she identifies as a troublemaker. She tells him the correct pronunciation of her last name (“Na Ka Neh,” with shorts a’s), and he asks her if she’s ever been in love and if she’ll get married. According to his mother, Sigmund says, Naomi looks too young to be a teacher. Naomi wonders to herself whether her youthful looks or her “oriental face” were what caused the parents’ surprised looks when she first started teaching. Sigmund says a friend of his wants to date her.
Naomi recalls going on a date with a widower father of one of her students. He asked, as everyone does, where she came from. She was born in Canada. Her grandparents, who were born in Japan, were Issei (first generation), her mother was Nisei, second generation, and Naomi is Sansei (third generation). The widower peppered her with questions, but never asked her out again.
Sigmund calls Naomi a spinster, an old maid. She admits that she is, as is her Aunt Emily, who lives in Toronto. Naomi wonders to herself whether Emily has ever been in love. In the middle of class, a doctor calls with bad news about Uncle. We don’t yet learn what the news is. Naomi thinks of the people she must call. After school, she leaves for Granton. She is not looking forward to seeing her Obasan (aunt).