fiction favorites…Heart of a Samurai

Heart of a Samurai: Based on the True Story of Manjiro Nakahama, by Margi Preus, with illustrations by Manjiro, Kawada Shoryo, and Jillian Tamaki

Beyond this island was a world about which Manjiro knew nothing.  It was, perhaps, a huge world.  It might be a frightening place, full of demons and monsters.  But it might be a dazzling world, full of wonder and mystery.  It might be, he thought, very beautiful.  If only he had wings, he could fly across the ocean and see all there was to see.  Then he would fly home, his beak full of food, his head full of wonders.

Manjiro stood to look out beyond the edges of his island.  But standing up so fast made him dizzy.  The sky, the sea, the earth all spun around him, in a blur of blue and green and gray, as if he’d been twirling and twirling. 

That is why he did not notice the boats at first…Two small boats moved toward the island…

“Boats!” he croaked.  Finding his voice, he shouted, “Rescue!”

…Manjiro plunged into the sea and swam, head down, toward the boats.  When he finally reached one of them, he raised his head and looked up…His blood turned to ice, and dizzy again, he felt himself sinking.  For when he had looked into his rescuer’s face, he had gazed into a pair of eyes as blue as the sea.

In 1841, a small fishing boat carrying 14-year-old Manjiro and four other fishermen was caught up in a storm off the coast of Shikoku, Japan that left them shipwrecked on a deserted island.  The men barely survived their six months on the island before they were rescued by an American whaling ship, the John Howland.  Manjiro, being less suspicious of the foreigners, grew dear to the American captain while aboard, and chose to go home with him, becoming in all likelihood the first Japanese person to set foot in America.  He arrived in New Bedford, Massachusetts at age 16.

Manjiro’s life reads like fiction –  whaling expeditions, daring sea ventures, wrathful sea captains, mutineers, imprisonment; falling in love, panning for gold,  becoming a samurai.  It’s an almost unbelievable life, but it’s true.  Eventually, Manjiro returned to Japan, and when Commodore Perry, the American naval commander charged with opening Japan up to the West after 250 years of isolation, arrived in Japan, Manjiro’s knowledge of English and American culture meant that he became the advisor to the shogun, filling a unique place in history.

Marji Preus’ Newbery Honor (2011) novel is absolutely fantastic.  She has taken Manjiro’s eventful life and spun it out for us in a riveting, clear, fascinating story.  The pain of racism, the wonderment of meeting brand new objects such as leather shoes, blue eyes, and chairs, the fear of foreign ways, the love between Captain Whitfield’s family and Manjiro, life on a whaling ship — all of this is packed into the pages and pages of true-life adventure.  Meanwhile, the book features many fascinating illustrations by Manjiro himself, as well as gorgeous, what appear to be blockprints by Jillian Tamaki.  There’s an epilogue succinctly telling more of Manjiro’s amazing life, a lengthy, helpful historical note, and pages of glossaries for the wealth of Japanese words, whaling terms, and sailor’s lingo that bring such authenticity to the account.  Finally, Preus lists suggested reading on a number of topics which surface in this story, from the world of the Samurai, to the California Gold Rush.

Great historical fiction for a wide range of ages, either as a read-aloud or for independent readers from about 5th grade and up.  I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Here’s the Amazon link:  Heart of a Samurai