With the completion of Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus, I have now read every 2011 Newbery Medal and honor book. I don’t think I can say that about any other year, and boy, am I happy! (It’s the small things, right?) All of the books have been good, but I think Heart of a Samurai just might be my favorite.
First things first: the cover. Have you seen a more appealing cover lately? I adore the color scheme, and the wave, boat, whale, and boy peering over the stern (bow? you’d think I’d know by now. . . ) scream “ADVENTURE!!” This same spirit is carried throughout the layout of the book, with each section of the book marked by a drawing of a huge sperm whale. Copies of the original drawings of Manjiro are also sprinkled throughout the text, which serve to remind the reader that yes, Manjiro really lived and experienced most of what happens in this story. Amazing!
If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Manjiro, a.k.a. John Mung, this is how it goes: Manjiro, a fourteen year old Japanese boy, is shipwrecked with his fellow fishermen on an island. He and his crewmates are rescued by an American whaling vessel and eventually brought to Hawaii. From there, Manjiro decided to go home to Massachusetts with the ship’s captain. He attended school there and became a part of the community. Manjiro is thought to be the first Japanese person to come to America. He eventually returned to Japan and was instrumental in the opening of Japan to the West.
Of course, what that little summary leaves out that the title indicates is all of the heart that Margi Preus embues this story with. Weaving historical events into a convincing narrative is not an easy task, but Preus does it with style and grace in Heart of a Samurai. She captures the spirit of Manjiro and his willingness to explore the great world in which he lived, even though his countrymen looked at any place other than Japan with fear and mistrust. This little conversation that Manjiro and Captain Whitfield have over a world map illustrates this spirit:
“The chart is like. . . invitation,” Manjiro said, staring at the unfamiliar letters that he knew formed words. “I cannot read the words, but I imagine they say, ‘Come and see!’ ”
The captain patted him on the back. “That isn’t what the words say,” he said, “but I think that is always what a chart means. When I see a place on a chart where I haven’t been, I wonder, ‘What is that place like?’ I look at that place again and again, wondering if something more might be revealed. But there’s nothing to be done but to go and see it for myself.”
Manjiro nodded, starting at the spot on the map Captain Whitfield said was his home in America.
“In the words of the ancients,” his mother had told him, “one should make one’s decisions within the space of seven breaths.”
Manjiro took seven deep, long breaths. By the last breath, he had made his decision: He would go to America and see it for himself. (83)
Preus’s writing is beautiful. She manages to communicate both Manjiro’s bafflement at being faced with so many new things all at once (including a little bit of fear since his countrymen and fellow castaways expect the western barbarians to eat them!) and his excitement in the face of all the adventure. A big part of this story is life aboard a whaling vessel, and a small part of that is how conflicted Manjiro feels at being a part of an operation that remorselessly kills other living things; this contradicts his philosophical (religious?) upbringing. It’s a study in a clash of cultures, but it’s not so heavy-handed that it is too much for an upper-elementary student to grapple with. The story is continued in a lengthy addenda: epilogue, historical note, and glossary. The epilogue and historical note aren’t necessary to the story, of course, but it’s interesting to read that after the story ends, Manjiro was indeed instrumental in the opening of Japan to the West, but at great personal cost.
Manjiro’s story is one that I’ve been interested in for a while. I’ve had a nonfiction title title about Manjiro, Shipwrecked!: The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy by Rhoda Blumberg, home from the library at least twice, but I still haven’t managed to read it. Has anyone read this one and reviewed it? I’d love to know what you think about it!
I give Heart of a Samurai a Highly Recommended, and I think this book would appeal to anyone from upper-elementary through adulthood (!) who loves a good adventure. I think it might hold extra appeal for boys, too.
My reviews of other 2011 Newbery winners: