Josiah's Reviews > Heart of a Samurai

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus
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Jun 10, 2011

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Read from June 10 to 11, 2011

The continued legacy of fictionalized biography among books recognized by the ALA with gold and silver Newbery Medals has found a worthy carrier in Heart of a Samurai. Margi Preus, in her debut novel, has shown that she firmly grasps what is necessary to create an interesting book of historical importance, taking the promising initial idea of writing about a peasant boy from Japan who would grow up to somehow become a revered samurai, and adding dashes of color and flair to the true story to fashion it into a reading experience that goes down smoothly and easily. In short, Margi Preus has made an important part of the history between American and Japanese relations into a readable narrative for her target audience.

Living in isolationist Japan of the 1840s, fourteen-year-old Manjiro and three other Japanese fisherman set off on their boat in the coastal waters of their island nation, with the intent of catching a haul. The voyage goes terribly wrong when a squall pummels the small boat and accosts its crew of four to the brink of death, at which point they are lucky enough to spot land and make it there while the boat still remains intact. The land they have reached is a barren, rocky place, though, devoid of much green or animal life, and just surviving is a brutal experience for the four shipwrecked fishermen. Manjiro and his friends have nearly accepted their fate of starvation when a ship happens to come close enough to the island on which they are marooned to allow Manjiro, in a frantic state of adrenaline powered speed, to swim out and catch the attention of the ship's captain. Manjiro and his four dying friends, having never before seen non-Japanese people, are terrified by the bizarre-looking white men with unnatural colored eyes who have rescued them. More easily than his older friends, though, Manjiro is willing to tentatively reach out to his rescuers and learn a little bit of their language, symbolically stepping from behind the strict government policies of Japan that absolutely forbid any contact with foreigners, to get a closer look at the unusual ways of the American men. Manjiro finds that while the foreign sailors are rowdy and don't always use proper manners, they seem a good sort in general, not all that different from his own countrymen. Manjiro's curiosity about America and the whole rest of the gigantic world outside of Japan makes for a difficult choice: should he try to return to his family in Japan, where the government might well execute him for having had contact with foreigners, or should he reluctantly agree to let go of his past, and seek his destiny in America?

Captain Whitfield, the man in charge of the ship that happenstance had brought to Manjiro and his friends in their hour of darkest need, is not at all the "barbarian" that white people had been made out to be in Japanese legends. In time, Whitfield comes to regard Manjiro as sort of the son that he'd never had, and Manjiro sees him as something of a father figure, since his own father had been dead for years before the fateful crash of their fishing boat. Through the myriad kindnesses of the captain, Manjiro is introduced to the full gamut of the American lifestyle, personally experiencing both the lovely and the terrible sides of the "new world". Manjiro has families on two different continents now, but he never gives up his dream of returning to Japan and being reunited with his mother and siblings, even as he knows how painful it will be to leave Captain Whitfield when the time comes for his return. And what can Manjiro expect when he steps on the shores of Japan for the first time in a decade, faced with the distinct possibility that the government still may imprison or even execute him for having dealt with foreigners?

Heart of a Samurai covers an awful lot of ground in the life of Manjiro, so there are many parts that have to be skipped over to make for a story of relative brevity; however, I didn't get the feeling at any point that the author was glossing over anything that definitely should have been treated with greater depth. Sometimes I do get that feeling when reading these kinds of fictionalized biographies, but not this time. The story is varied and makes a variety of worthy points, from the importance of chasing after personal ambition (like the way Manjiro pursues his desire to explore the world outside of his home country even when his Japanese elders tell him that it will poison his mind), to how much hurt can be caused by prejudice (as Manjiro finds himself repeatedly shut out and mistrusted by Americans, the same way that he knows his own people would likely have responded if the situation were reversed and a white teenager were transplanted to Japan), to the surpassing significance of family in any culture and any time, no matter the shading of one's skin or the language that one speaks. Some character qualities, like love for friends and family, are universal. As the sudden and unexpected opportunity presents itself for Manjiro to become a pivotal figure in bridging the gap between his two home countries, he steps forward confidently into the role that is so perfectly tailored to his own unique life experience. A little bit of his all-inclusive spirit appears to have rubbed off on both sides, providing the starting point for a peaceable coexistence between the two proud and powerful nations. Looking back through history it's clear that Manjiro had a deep and undeniable impact on that connection, and we are so much better off for the alliance that he bravely instigated.

Would I have given Heart of a Samurai a Newbery Honor citation for 2011? Well, probably not. There are several others I would have gone with instead that unfortunately were not recognized by the Newbery Committee; nonetheless, this is a fine novel deserving of such acclaim as it has received, and it has much to offer to either the seasoned scholar of history or the relative newbie who simply has an interest in the book and its subject. I certainly would give my recommendation, and at least two and a half stars, to Heart of a Samurai.
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Quotes Josiah Liked

Margi Preus
“The door through which he had glimpsed such wondrous light, he had walked through. He had encountered both beauty and pain. Now he understood that was how it would always be—no matter where he went in the world.”
Margi Preus, Heart of a Samurai


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