Heart of a Samurai
By Margi Preus
(Harry N. Abrams, Hardcover, 9780810989818, 320pp.)
Publication Date: August 2010
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In 1841, a Japanese fishing vessel sinks. Its crew is forced to swim to a small, unknown island, where they are rescued by a passing American ship. Japan’s borders remain closed to all Western nations, so the crew sets off to America, learning English on the way.
Manjiro, a fourteen-year-old boy, is curious and eager to learn everything he can about this new culture. Eventually the captain adopts Manjiro and takes him to his home in New England. The boy lives for some time in New England, and then heads to San Francisco to pan for gold. After many years, he makes it back to Japan, only to be imprisoned as an outsider. With his hard-won knowledge of the West, Manjiro is in a unique position to persuade the shogun to ease open the boundaries around Japan; he may even achieve his unlikely dream of becoming a samurai.
"A terrifc biographical novel by Margi Preus." -Wall Street Journal
*STARRED review from Booklist*
Manjiro is 14 when a freak storm washes him and his four fishing companions onto a tiny island far from their Japanese homeland. Shortly before starving, they are rescued by an American whaling ship. But it’s 1841 and distrust is rampant: the Japanese consider the whalers “barbarians,” while the whalers think of the Japanese as “godless cannibals.” Captain William Whitfield is different—childless, he forges a bond with the boy, and when it comes time for Manjiro to choose between staying with his countrymen or going to America as Whitfield’s son, he picks the path of adventure. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water story (although this fish goes into the water repeatedly), and it’s precisely this classic structure that gives the novel the sturdy bones of a timeless tale. Backeted by gritty seafaring episodes—salty and bloody enough to assure us that Preus has done her research—the book’s heart is its middle section, in which Manjiro, allegedly the first Japanese to set foot in America, deals with the prejudice and promise of a new world. By Japanese tradition, Manjiro was destined to be no more than a humble fisherman, but when his 10-year saga ends, he has become so much more. Wonderful back matter helps flesh out this fictionalized companion to the same true story told in Rhoda Blumberg’s Shipwrecked! The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy (2001).
— Daniel Kraus
*STARRED review from Kirkus Reviews*
In 1841, 14-year-old Manjiro joined four others on an overnight fishing trip. Caught by a severe storm, their small rowboat was shipwrecked on a rocky island. Five months later, they were rescued by the crew of a whaling ship from New Bedford. Manjiro, renamed John Mung, was befriended by the captain and eventually lived in his home in New Bedford, rapidly absorbing Western culture. But the plight of his impoverished family in Japan was never far from Manjiro’s mind, although he knew that his country’s strict isolationist policy meant a death sentence if he returned. Illustrated with Manjiro’s own pencil drawings in addition to other archival material and original art from Tamaki, this is a captivating fictionalized (although notably faithful) retelling of the boy’s adventures. Capturing his wonder, remarkable willingness to learn, the prejudice he encountered and the way he eventually influenced officials in Japan to open the country, this highly entertaining page-turner is the perfect companion to Shipwrecked! The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy, by Rhoda Blumberg (2001). (historical note, extensive glossary, bibliography.) (Historical fiction. 9-13)
A Japanese teenager living in the mid-19th century bridges two worlds in this stunning debut novel based on true events. Manjiro and his fellow fishermen find refuge on a remote island after a storm destroys their ship. When they are rescued by an American whaleboat captain and given the chance to return home with him, Manjiro accepts the offer. His encounters with a land that he has been taught is barbaric and his subsequent efforts to return to Japan shape him into an admirable character. Preus places readers in the young man’s shoes, whether he is on a ship or in a Japanese prison. Her deftness in writing is evident in two poignant scenes, one in which Manjiro realizes the similarities between the Japanese and the Americans and the other when he reunites with his Japanese family. A sailor named Jolly and an American teen express the racism he experiences in America. Both of these characters gain sympathy from readers as their backgrounds are revealed, and as one of them comes to respect Manjiro. The truths he learns about himself and his fellow men and women are beautifully articulated. Manjiro’s own drawings are well placed throughout the narrative and appropriately captioned. Preus includes extensive historical notes and a bibliography for those who want to know more about the man and the world in which he lived.
*STARRED review from Publishers Weekly*
In picture book author (The Peace Bell) Preus’s excellent first novel, based on the true story of Manjiro Nakahama, Manjiro is 14 in 1841 when he is shipwrecked in a storm. An American whaling ship eventually rescues him and his shipmates, and while his fellow fishermen are fearful of the “barbarians,” Manjiro is curious about them and the world. Knowing Japanese law forbids him from returning home because he’s left the country, he learns English and whaling, gets a new name and family with the captain, and eventually seeks his way in America as the first known Japanese to set foot there. He finds innovative ways to challenge both hardships and prejudice, and never loses his curiosity. Preus mixes fact with fiction in a tale that is at once adventurous, heartwarming, sprawling, and nerve-racking in its depictions of early anti-Asian sentiment. She succeeds in making readers feel every bit as “other” as Manjiro, while showing America at its best and worst through his eyes. Period illustrations by Manjiro himself and others, as well as new art from Jillian Tamaki, a glossary, and other background information are included.
Melissa Block and Robert Siegel solicit questions and comments for the May edition of "Backseat Book Club." The upcoming book is Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus. Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. More at NPR.org
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