Monday, May 23, 2011

Heart of a Samurai

Book talk: Manjiro was a fisherman.  His father had been a fisherman before him, and if he ever had a son he, too, would be a fisherman.  One day, a fishing expedition goes awry and he ends up shipwrecked on a cruel, barren rock of an island.  On that island, starving, near death, he realizes that he does not want to be a fisherman.  What he wants to be is a samurai.  Manjiro knows it's impossible, but what's the harm in a dying boy's dream?  But Manjiro does not die on that island.  He is rescued by a crew of barbarians, Westerners from America.  All his life Manjiro has been taught to fear and distrust these foreigners, but as he starts to learn their language and their ways he finds himself oddly at ease around them.  Manjiro turns from fisherman to sailor on a whaling vessel, and as his life is rocked by the wild seas he finds himself surrounded by impossibilities.  Perhaps his luck will last long enough to see one last impossibility and childhood dream come true.

Rocks my socks: This novel is based on a true story, which makes it all the more fascinating.  The author adds a lot of interesting historical details in about life at the time in general and whaling in particular.  Peppered throughout are drawings from the period, including some drawn by the real Manjiro.  In the novel Manjiro is endearing and it's easy to empathize with him and care about what turns his life takes, especially knowing that he really existed.  The novel also has a strong moral compass to navigate it through such choppy waters and there are a lot of important lessons for children (and adults) to learn form Manjiro.

Rocks in my socks:  The author clearly did her research and set about writing the book with the best of intentions, but I can't help but feel that the story is told from a very Western perspective.  There's a strong patriotic 'land of opportunities' theme around America and while Manjiro does mention missing home on occasion what he mostly describes missing is family and food.  Most mentions of Japanese culture are  critical with a focus on its strict class system and its demonizing of foreigners.   There isn't anything that is untrue or unfair on its own, but taken all together I question her focus on the negative aspects of the culture without taking the time to highlight some of the positive aspects of the culture as well.  As it's written I'm not sure why Manjiro would ever want to return to Japan, but he does--so clearly Preus is missing something here.

Every book its reader: This is a great book for anyone looking for a historical adventure novel.  The samurai tagline will appeal to a lot of young readers, but there is very little violence in the book.  Much of the novel also takes place on a whaling vessel, so anyone looking for a good high-seas adventure will be pleased as well.  I'd give it to readers 10 and up.

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

Buy it at your local independent book store or check it out from your local library

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