The coming-of-age novel is a very important type of book. Not only is a reader given an outlet to share their pain they received from when they grew up but others learn how to avoid causing upset to others. It is great to see new voices creating new coming-of-age novels using the 1970s and 80s as settings for their stories, giving new awareness to problems of the human condition. One such novel is Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashi.
Egg Murakami is eight years old and her feet are perfect. Not everyone can say that. She dangles her feet over the edge of the bed and clicks her tongue. The crisp autumn light spills over the ledge of her window, throwing shadows across the floor. Mornings are new, like a fresh sheet of paper. Mornings are new, without any mistakes. she can hear her mother in the kitchen, the metallic clatter of the kettle on the stove. He big sister Kathy twists the tap in the bathroom, a squeak that runs through the pipes in the floors. It is almost peaceful. Nekoneko, her puppet Kitty with the homemade eye patch, stands guard on her bedside table, gazing over the smash and scatter of Lego and dinky cars strewn on the faded russet rug. beneath her window lies the barrens of southern Alberta, the stunted grass that sweeps into the Badlands. To the right the sagging barn with its long wire pens, Left, the stubble fields that roll to the horizon. She taps her heels together. The low groan of the barn gate rumbles through the air. The ostriches burst from their enclosure, shaggy feathers hovering above the ground, legs a blur of spindly angles, as if in flight after all. Across the pen, down the line of the fence, they run with a frantic energy – then stop, stiff, as if confronted by an immovable object. The ostriches spin, twirling, their swings spread as if to greet the day, heads held high in a dizzying, exuberant dance.
Kobayashi has written an excellent story about eight-year old Egg Murakami. Her family is not quite dysfunctional but not a perfect family unit since her brother’s death. Mama Murakami drinks to excess and Papa has moved into the barn on their family ostrich farm. And big sister Kathy is in love with her best friend. The story deals with Egg’s day-to-day exploration of what life is suppose to be like and what it really is.
The doors of the bus fly open and the aisle is a mass of gangly legs, jutting elbows, the shove and holler as the stampede to the yard begins. Egg hunkers down and waits – the rush is like rattling stones in a soda pop can. When she hears, “Last one off is a dirty, rotten egg!” she stiffens, but no that is not for her. With the big kids out of the way, Egg peeps her head above the green vinyl seats to make sure the coast is clear. Then she grabs her bookbag and lunch box.
Egg steps off the bus into the dazzle of light. First day of school and everything is new like a stack of birthday quarters. She taps her feet together. The blue whale has a heart the size of a car, and the speed of light is the fastest ever. These are facts. Irrefutable. Egg holds the word on her tongue as she steps toward the playground. The grit of the dirt crunches beneath her feet; she likes the shuffle-scratch sound. she takes a deep breath. The freshly mown scent of the football field tickles her nose and the white gravel of the baseball diamond actually seems to sparkle. A part of her, that twisty tight part of her deep in her chest, loosens ever so slightly as the warm brush of light glows against her skin. School is books too, the best Dictionary of all and Evangeline Granger in the library. A once upon a time and a happily ever after.
It’s a new year and everything can be different.
Kobayashi has documented the thoughts of a eight-year old well here. All the joy and angst, the fun and the fears, the happiness and the sorrows, the errors and the confusions are written about here as well as some new emotions other writers may have overlooked.
Later that night, when Egg creeps down the stairs in her slippery socks, she sees Mama in the living room, slumped in the big chair. The television is on the late night show of Onward Christian Soldiers. A pledge of ten dollars a month gets you a Bible with a golden pin. The choir, all dressed in white, sings with an unearthly fervour “Are You Washed in the Blood?” but Mama does not stir. The electronic glow of the screen bathes her in a ghastly pallor. Dead dead dead and Egg almost screams.
“Egg, go upstairs.” Kathy’s voice comes from behind her. Kathy’s hand is on her Mama’s shoulder, jostling her.
“She’s not dead, is she?”
“No,” Kathy says with a glance at the bottle on the coffee table. “She just . . . could you turn off the television?”
Egg clicks off the set. She can smell the acrid liquor, like the clinging scent of gasoline.
“I want to help.”
“Go to bed, Egg. You’ll be in the way.” Kathy leans forward. With a deep breath, she loops her mother’s arm around her shoulders and lifts her to her feet. Kathy eases her Mama up the stairs, the creak and stagger, the scrape along the wall, the groan of the mattress springs as Kathy rolls her mother into her bed.
As Egg hovers by Mama’s doorway, she realizes Kathy has done this all before. A queasiness shifts in the pit of her stomach.
Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashi is more than likely one of the most profound books of this year. A true coming-of-age novel that documents the complexities of growing up. It is a must read.