Friday, July 23, 2010

Book Review: Heart of a Samurai, by Margi Preus (Amulet Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Inspired by a true story, Heart of a Samurai, by debut novelist Margi Preus, tells the fascinating tale of young Nakahama Manjiro, who at the opening of book is a 14-year old fisherman from a small village in Japan and goes on to become the first Japanese person to visit the United States.

In 1841, when the book begins, Japan's Sakoku policy under which no foreigner could enter or leave Japan under penalty of death had been in effect for nearly two centuries, and Japanese children were taught that Westerners were blue-eyed demons and barbarians. Yet when Manjiro and his comrades are shipwrecked on a tiny island, he is rescued by a passing American whaling boat when he and the others are nearly at death's door. Everything about the Westerners is strange to the Japanese fisherman, from their bizarre way of sitting on chairs, with their legs swinging under them, to eating with a fork, to their strange clothing with buttons and pockets. Manjiro is quick to learn their language, and is encouraged by the ship's kind captain, a New Englander named Whitfield, to ask as many questions as he likes. To begin with, he's never even heard of America!

While on the American ship, Manjiro is introduced to American-style whaling. When he proves his bravery during the whale hunt, the captain gives him a new American name: John Mung. Whitfield explains to Majiro that America is the land of opportunity, where men can fulfill their hopes and dreams. In Japan, Manjiro had never ever thought about such things; if your father was a fisherman, you, too, were a fisherman, and so it went, from generation to generation. When the Captain offers Manjiro the chance to go to America with him as his adopted son, Manjiro accepts, leaving his friends behind in the Sandwich Islands.

When Manjiro arrives in America, he is puzzled by the prejudice he encounters. Boys laugh at him openly, as well as making faces and gestures behind his back, even pulling at their eyelids. At church, the elders think he would be more "comfortable in the seats reserved for negroes." He must cope with intolerance at school as well. Although the captain and his wife are kind to him, Manjiro is homesick for Japan, but how will he ever be able to return?

When Manjiro is offered a position on a ship that will be sailing in Japanese waters, he sets sail, but years pass, and many adventures, including time spent in the California gold fields, before he is able to make his way back to Japan.

When he finally lands in his homeland, the much-anticipated reunion with his family is not to be; instead he is arrested and imprisoned as a Western spy! Not until 1852, eleven years after he originally left Japan, is he reunited with his family. At the conclusion of the story, Manjiro is called into service by a Japanese lord who wants Manjiro to teach his samurai more about the "barbarians." Perhaps Manjiro will even become a samurai himself, an unheard-of-dream for a former lowly fisherman.

In an epilogue, Preus explains that just months after Manjiro began teaching, Matthew Perry demanded access to Japanese ports for a fleet of American ships. Suddenly Manjiro's knowledge of America was in high demand by the shogun himself, and Manjiro indeed was elevated to samurai rank, an unprecedented event for someone of such low birth. His many accomplishments included translating navigational books into Japanese, writing the first English book for Japanese people, interpreting at the first Japanese embassy to the U.S., and teaching navigation, shipbuilding, English, and mathematics.

I found this action-packed historical fiction/adventure story to be a real page-turner.  Moreover, after having read a number of books where young Westerners find themselves in Japan (see my reviews of The Young Samurai series, for example), it was interesting to imagine just how strange America and the West would have seemed to a Japanese person at this time.  One caveat for sensitive readers:  there are quite graphic descriptions of the whaling activities, which may disturb some young animal lovers.

The author includes a glossary of Japanese words, whaling terms, and sailors' lingo, as well as a bibliography for further reading.

The story of Manjiro has so many classic adventure story elements--a shipwreck, rescue by "barbarians," violence, danger, mutiny, a "fish-out-of-water" theme, even gold fever. Not surprisingly Manjiro's amazing story has inspired several other books for young readers as well. These include:

Manjiro: The Boy Who Risked His Life for Two Countries, a picture book by Emily Arnold McCully (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008) and Shipwrecked!: The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy, by Rhoda Blumberg (Harper Collins, 2003), a biography aimed for ages 9-12.

Release date:  August 1, 2010

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review! This sounds like a wonderful read. I'll have to get hold of it when it comes out. I'm always looking for fascinating middle school books to review. Speaking of historical fiction for kids, have you read "Shackleton's Stowaway"? It's terrific--I reviewed it recently:'s-stowaway-by-victoria-mckernan/