Sunday, September 30, 2012

Heart of a Samauri by Margi Preus

Heart of a Samurai is a fictionalized account of the true story of Manjiro Nakahama, whom the Japanese called "the boy who discovered America".

Manjiro's amazing story begins in 1841 with the sinking of the fishing boat he had joined. Manjiro along with four other sailors, Jusuke, Denzo, Toraemon, and Goemon, dto land on a deserted island which they named Bird Island, for its large albatross population. Manjiro was just fourteen years old and had left his mother and younger siblings to find work. At the time of the shipwreck, Japan was extremely xenophobic and isolationist. Any person who left Japan and later tried to return was put to death. For this reason, fisherman were warned not to stray too far from the coast for fear of "contamination" by the barbarians who lived outside of Japan. If they were lost at sea, there would be unable to return.

Once on the island, Manjiro and his companions waited for rescue by a passing ship, their situation becoming more dire with the passing of each day. Eventually after about six months, they were picked up by the whaling ship, the John Howland, captained by John Whitfield. Terrified of these strange bearded barbarians, Manjiro and his companions expected to be humiliated, poisoned and possibly eaten. Instead the sailors fed and clothed them. Manjiro began to learn English so that he could learn what the sailors were doing sailing such a large ship on the ocean and to find out what they intended to do with him and his fellow Japanese. Not understanding Manjiro very well, the American sailors gave him the name, John Mung.

Manjiro found that Captain Whitfield was a kindly man who expected Manjiro to ask questions and learn. Captain Whitfield tells Manjiro that they had hoped to take them back to their homeland, but when they discovered they were from Japan, they knew this to be impossible since Japan will not accept any foreign ships in their ports. Manjiro comes to understand that the John Howland is a whaling vessel and when they finally make their first whale kill, he learns about whaling and why the Americans hunt whales.

After three and half years at sea, the John Howland returned to its home port of New Bedford in Massachusetts. Manjiro was one of the first Japanese to visit America and people did not know how to treat him. This made Manjiro's adjustment to living in America difficult at times. He decided to accept Captain Whitfield's offer to live with him and his new wife and also attended school in America. However, Manjiro eventually decided that he needed to try to return home to Japan, both to see his mother whom he greatly missed and also to work for change in Japan's isolationist ways.  Manjiro has many more adventures, including being part of California's gold rush before he does return to Japan with some of his remaining friends who were shipwrecked with him so many years before. Wishing to bring about change in Japan, it was his influence which finally made the Emperor open Japan to other countries.

Heart of a Samurai is a great book for young teen boys who enjoy historical fiction. The  novel is a fictionalized account of Manjiro's adventures and includes many of Manjiro's drawings and some photographs as well. The novel takes its title from the fact that Manjiro wanted to be a samurai but because he was a lowly fisherman, he could never achieve this high station in Japanese society. However, he had the heart of a samurai for his bravery in living among the "barbarians" and he was eventually made a samurai when he returned to Japan.

This is a beautifully crafted novel in every way; the writing is superb and the illustrations enhance the reader's understanding of this unusual, interesting story. The hero is a likable, brave soul whom we can't help but root for! There is an Epilogue, a Historical Note, a Glossary and a Bibliography where readers can find books about Manjiro, whaling and also Japan.  Highly recommended.

Book Details:
Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus
New York: Amulet Books        2012
301 pp.

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