Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Written in third person, Heart of a Samurai is adventurous YA historical fiction. Author Margi Preus stumbled across the facts of the remarkable life lived by Nakahama Manjiro--a simple Japanese farm boy lost at sea in 1841.
It is a wonderful story--great for middle school boys especially--full of a lot of action and conflict, yes, but also built on the themes of perseverance, honesty, and cultural awareness.
Nestled deep inside the roots of 250 years of isolation from the rest of the world, nineteenth century Japan functioned as a world of Shogun and samurai and distrusted the monsters of the West. Nationalism and loyalty insulated the Japanese from the rest of the world to such an extreme that it was well-know that if a Japanese citizen left Japan it would be assumed they had been poisoned by the West and not welcome to return to their homeland.
Manjiro, 14 years-old at the time, settled on a fishing boat with some friends to help provide food for his family. Without a father, he became the primary the food source for his family. He had recently failed his mother by accidentally destroying a large cache of family rice; returning home with fish was his way to make up for it. Unfortunately, a storm shipwrecks him on a deserted island, and it would be nine years before he would find himself on Japanese soil again. His family feared him dead as he went out on the fishing boat without their knowledge--all his family knew was that he left home one day and just vanished.
Rescued by the American whaling vessel John Howland Manjiro, nicknamed John Mung by the whalers on board, teaches himself English and earns a spot assisting on whaling missions. The captain of the John Howland takes to Manjiro and offers him a place in his home upon returning to America--he treats Manjiro like a son.
In America Maniro goes to school, learns the cooper trade, studies navigation, all while farming the land, riding horses, and enduring the racist taunts of Americans of all ages. He joins another whaling ship only to return to America to join the California gold rush--and he strikes enough gold to send himself back to Japan at the age of twenty-three.
He had experienced the world for nine years--most of it as a teenager.
His return to Japan was not full of pomp and circumstance initially. Treated very cautiously by the ruling Tokagawu Shogun, Maniro found himself imprisoned (and interrogated) for a year and a half before being released to rejoin his family.
After on a short time home in the embrace of his mother, Maniro is summoned by samurai...and he is made a samurai. This was deemed impossible at the time as he was not born of nobility. Yet, the knowledge and eye-witness accounts he had of the West served as a powerful badge of honor and tool. He served as a translator when Commodore Perry's fleet stood at the gateway of Japan and demanded access to its harbors. It was Maniro who convinced his people that America was not full of monsters looking devour their country...that the world was indeed full of strange and different people, but all were beautiful.
He is said to have been among the first Japanese to ride a railroad, in a steamship, to officer an American vessel, and to command a trans-Pacific voyage. He is credited with offering many new things to his homeland, chief among them is whaling.
I highly recommend this Newberry Honor book for a place on your classroom shelf. This is traditional YA literature--accessible to all types of middle school readers, clean, and full of great things to discuss and learn.
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