Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Heart of a Samurai

Manjiro is a teenaged Japanese fisherman working with four other villagers when a great storm comes up, destroys their boat and leaves them shipwrecked for 5 months on a small island. It is the 19th century and Manjiro knows that there will be no return to Japan, even if they should be saved by a passing ship, for Japanese law at the time forbade the return of anyone who left Japan, even unwillingly.

An American whaling ship finds the boys and the captain takes a liking to Manjiro, taking him aboard as a galley boy. Manjiro returns to New Bedford, Maine with the ship and for ten years works on the captain’s farm and on his ship before returning to Japan where he spends time in prison before finally reuniting with his family.

Preus’s debut novel is a testament to the power of research when writing fiction. Her descriptions of life aboard a whaler, the village of New Bedford, the racism Manjiro faces no matter where he was and life in pre-contact Japan give the reader everything needed to transport herself to that time and that place. Manjiro is made of staunch hero material, after all he does fancy himself a samurai in spite of his humble birth, rising to every challenge with a stout heart. Preus's deftness in writing is especially evident in two poignant scenes, one in which Manjiro realizes the similarities between Japanese and American people and the other when he reunites with his Japanese family.

An excellent bibliography, historical notes and glossary help flesh out this fictionalized version of the same story told in Rhoda Blumberg’s Shipwrecked! The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy.

Heart of a Samurai was a 2010 Newbery Honor Book and is one of the titles on the 2013 Oregon Readers Choice Awards nominee list.

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