An essay written by Jael Richardson, Guest Reader for Prairie Ostrich – Amnesty International Book Club’s November 2016 selection. Jael Richardson is author of The Stone Thrower and director of the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD).
Prairie Ostrich is one of those novels I wish I’d read earlier. It’s the kind of novel I wish I had had in high school – the kind of book that sparks thoughts that are both simple and profound, that fire up big ideas. It’s the kind of book that still has me thinking about who I am as a person and what my responsibility is as a citizen of the world and as a member of my community.
When I was in high school, the Canadian books I remember were stories set in the rural prairies and on vast landscapes blanketed in snow. They were stories that in my older years, I was determined to avoid. But it turns out I wasn’t craving an escape from the geography of rural Canada in the Canadian literature I was reading. I wasn’t longing to cut out voices from a large and important part of the country – a part of the country I visited for the first time rather recently. What I was craving in high school – what I still crave now – are stories that are not fixated on the immenseness of the land and the sound of the wind because the realities of lived experiences for outsiders on this land are far more pressing. I was searching for stories like Tamai Kobayashi’s Prairie Ostrich.
Prairie Ostrich is told from the perspective of Egg, a young, first generation Canadian who is balancing the hopes and dreams of Canadian life under the pressures and expectations of parents who, while living in Alberta, remain deeply influenced by their Japanese upbringing. In this way, Prairie Ostrich provides an important perspective on this country for the growing number of people who have come from other parts of the world and chosen Canada as their home.
How does being raised by immigrants and balancing another culture alongside Canadian life impact your sense of belonging, your sense of home? What does it mean to be Canadian as a first-generation Canadian, as an immigrant, as a person of colour?
But Prairie Ostrich also invites readers to think about social justice and human rights in ways that are particularly fitting for Amnesty International Book Club readers. The story and the characters invite us to consider the role of action versus inaction in the face of injustice, hardship, and difficulty.
Throughout the novel, Egg is faced with many opportunities to act or speak out, and sometimes she does. In her search for solutions for answers to her parents’ sadness, she speaks up in a Sunday morning Bible class at church only to be rejected by her teacher, kicked out of class for daring to ask questions. The entire town of Bittercreek, in fact, seems rooted in inaction, which impacts Egg, her sister Kathy, and the entire Murakami family. Teachers see bullies pick on kids and do nothing. A teacher is abused by her husband and nothing happens. A man is chased out of town after being beaten, and no one is punished.
Prairie Ostrich reminds us that while action is active and decisive, inaction is not passive. It is also a choice, often with deep and harmful consequences that affect us as individuals as well as those around us. Inaction is a choice to allow ignorance, bitterness and suffering to sink deeper and take root in our lives, to poison us from the inside out.
“To take action isn’t necessarily to play the superhero,” a friend said. “The idea of fixing the world is big and overwhelming, but the idea of standing up for what we personally believe is important is easier to digest. And that’s where change starts.”
Earlier this year, I was referred to as an “activist” on the cover of a magazine for starting the Festival of Literary Diversity – a festival that celebrates stories like Prairie Ostrich and novelists like Tamai Kobayashi – stories and authors who, in the past, have been overlooked in the Canadian literary canon and community. It was the first time I had ever been described as an activist, and it made me think of the ways we take action and the ways we respond to what’s wrong in our communities, in our country, and in the world. What is it that sparks action that’s risky and bold, action that supersedes the obstacles we may face and the fears associated with those obstacles?
That’s why young Egg Murakami is such a deeply compelling character for me. Her simple actions, her generosity, her silence, her curiosity, her moments of triumph and failure all remind me what it looks like to live in a world full of complex choices, to search for place and belonging and opportunities to be better people in an imperfect and broken world.
Discussion Questions for Prairie Ostrich from Jael Richardson
1. The description for the novel reads, “The Murakami family is not happy.” What are the different ways that each of the family members cope with grief and how do those differences reflect their upbringing, their origins, their age, etc.?
2. So much of this story, and any story in fact, is about perspective. This story focuses on Egg’s life – her view of her family and Bittercreek, Alberta. What difference would it make if the story was told by her sister? Her mother? Her father? A combination? What would readers lose and gain?
3. Consider the symbolism of the name Egg as it relates to the entire novel. What role do names play in shaping character and identity in a country as diverse as Canada?
4. Egg is referred to in the description of the novel as a “quiet witness”. In what ways is Egg quiet and in what ways is that quietness incredibly loud and powerful? Consider instances in the novel where Egg is “loud” in word or action.
5. In telling stories to Egg, Kathy changes the endings so that they are “happy”. Is this a good thing to do? Why or why not? Does Prairie Ostrich have a happy ending?
6. Consider the impact of action versus inaction. When does Egg act in defence of someone or something and what is the result? How does the choice to speak out or stay quiet impact the sisters, the family, the school, the town?
Discussion Questions for Prairie Ostrich from Amnesty
1. Did you enjoy the novel? What did you find most engaging and most challenging about Prairie Ostrich?
2. While the role models in Egg’s life are trapped in grief, she maintains a separate reality of fairytale and fantasy – from her love for super heroes to imagining Anne Frank as her best friend. As a child, who did you idolize and how did it impact your growth as an individual?
3. Egg asks an important question: “Do lives have a moral? Or is it just an accident on the railway trestle over the slow flowing river?” How would you answer this, and, what would be the moral of your own story?
4. “Ostriches don’t hide their head in the sand. That is a myth,” considers Egg. How does the ostrich lore add to the story, and in what ways does it impact Egg’s growth? Why do you think the author chose ostriches to convey these small lessons?
5. Egg wonders about love. “Evangeline loved Albert but she couldn’t save him. What’s the point of love if you can’t save anyone? What’s the point of anything?” How do you answer that question?
6. The town and Egg’s family seem literally paralyzed in either bitterness or grief. But by the end of the novel, Egg’s actions have created a change for the better both in small and large ways. Have you stood up for others, or yourself – and would you consider it to be heroic? If not, why not?