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Naomi’s Tree

by Joy Kogawa; Ruth Ohi, illus.

Novelist and poet Joy Kogawa has added another volume to her oeuvre about the experiences of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Naomi’s Tree is a folk tale based on Kogawa’s childhood memories. It is important for children to learn about the grave mistakes that governments make in the name of safety, but the approach here may not be the most effective way to teach this lesson.

Kogawa’s own history is naturally riveting; told in simple language, it would impress even children of eight, for whom Naomi’s Tree is written. But Kogawa already told her story compellingly in the children’s novel Naomi’s Road (in turn based closely on her adult book Obasan), which effectively depicts life in an internment camp in a way young people will understand. In turning these experiences into folklore for a picture book, she renders them more remote. Japan becomes the Land of Morning; Canada, the Land across the Sea; and a particular cherry tree, planted by her grandparents in her Vancouver backyard, becomes the Friendship Tree. Young readers would be hard pressed to understand from this book that Naomi, despite being a second-generation Canadian, was treated as an enemy of Canada, wrested from her home, and thrown into an internment camp. This specific and terrible experience is only alluded to in fuzzy phrases such as “Great sadness filled the world.” In fact, Naomi’s Tree is the least successful rendition of Kogawa’s story.  

Kogawa’s personification of the tree is an integral part of the book’s sentimentality. This story would have touched readers if more feelings had been expressed by Naomi, and fewer by the tree. The concluding lines, “Throughout the world, the songs of the Friendship Trees and the songs of those who love us forever fill the air like cherry blossoms in the spring,” are representative of the precious prose. Ruth Ohi’s soft and pretty illustrations perfectly reflect the text – in that they, too, are cloying and sadly, ultimately forgettable.