Sunday, June 12, 2011

Heart of a Samarai

Manjiro, a poor fourteen-year-old fisherman, gets shipwrecked with four other Japanese young men on an island where they are rescued by an American whaling ship in 1841. Japan has had 250 years of isloationist policy where if a citizen comes in contact with a foreigner they cannot come back to their country because they are tainted. The Japanese sailors are in a fix when the whaling ship comes along. Do they starve to death on the island or do they hitch a ride with a bunch of barbarians?

Obviously, they choose the barbarians. While Manjiro's  companions stay separate from the crew and make no attempt to learn the language or work the ship, Manjiro is fascinated by sailing and whaling and he quickly learns the language and interacts with the crew. When offered an opportunity to travel to American with the Captain he takes it while his companions are dropped off at a Hawaiian port. In America, Manjiro goes to school where he has to learn to deal with bullies and acceptance. He lives in the U.S. for about 10 years before looking for gold in California. He is successful enough to travel back to Japan where he is imprisoned for years as a spy before policies shift and Japan decides to make contact with the world. Then Manjiro's language and knowledge of American culture becomes critical to the leaders in helping them open their world to others.

This book is written from a western point of view and I found some parts stereotypical, particularly from the thinking in the character Goemon. I found the book lacking in authenticity and understanding of Japanese culture. I would really like to give it to one of our students from Japan and get their view on it. I thought Manjiro sounded American in his thinking not Japanese. Also, Manjiro wouldn't have spoken as well as he did in the book, but it would be really difficult to write how someone acquires language at the age of 14. I just know from living in Asia that he wouldn't be that fluent with tenses and sentences on the whaling ship.  She had some short choppy sentences but then would switch to complete sentences, but these were minor occurences and didn't take away from the story. I did like how the author shows that Manjiro had to face prejudices from Jolly and the bully at school. It was refreshing to see that Jolly changed in the story. I also liked how the author writes about Manjiro being interested in a girl but how he overhears her talking about him and realizes that he has no chance with her being a foreigner. It is hard to be accepted as an outsider.

I thought the plot was rushed at times and covered some huge time periods. I also thought the bond between Manjiro and the Captain should have been established more. The Japanese are so intensely loyal to family that I found it unbelieveable that Manjiro would leave his family behind when he was the breadwinner and follow the captain. It would have been more believeable if he had no family. This is a true story so I wonder if this part was true or not. Sometimes the truth is harder to understand than something made up.

I'm not sure why this is young adult except that the killing of whales might be distressing to children and the vocabulary high. I thought the author handled the whaling well and Manjiro had sympathy for the magnificent whale. It is an interesting book and would be a good one to use for book club because there is so much to talk about in it. There is little violence and just  one small part where Manjiro thinks a girl is cute.

Reading Level: Young Adult

:-) :-) :-) 3 Smileys

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