Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus
Harry Abrams, 2011
Newbery Honor Book
Asian Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature
Heart of a Samurai was introduced to me by Junko san, the librarian at the Asian Rural Institute in Nishinasuno, Japan. It’s based on a true story,” she said. “I think you’ll like it.” I loved it, not in the same way that I loved the onsen, miso soup, the rich green rice paddies and Japanese culture I was soaking up this past fall. But because this satisfying adventure story also carried an underlying message of hope, acceptance and cultural understanding. It’s a great read for pre-teens and young adults.
Manjiro is a fourteen-year-old fisherman’s son living in the closed society of 19th century Japan. He has been brought up to fear what lies beyond the waters surrounding his country. After 250 years of isolationism, the Japanese believe Westerners are bad- smelling ogres who eat Japanese people. If anyone has contact with Westerners and survives, he is banished from Japan forever and will be killed if he tries to return.
When Manjiro’s fishing boat capsizes, he and his friends are shipwrecked on an island for months. His experiences here, and those to come, give him the opportunity to exhibit the bravery of a samurai, though his class status would never allow him to achieve this title. The companions are near death when an American whaling ship passes. Manjiro conquers his fear and chooses rescue. But new fears pop up – climbing the rigging to watch for whales and surging through the sea in a small boat pulled by a harpooned whale. Finally, Manjiro reaches Fairhaven, the Massachusetts port where the ship’s captain and his wife adopt Manjiro.
So much is strange to Manjiro in this new world, but he develops trust in the captain and eagerly learns about each new situation he encounters. He learns that some Americans are as prejudiced about him as his countrymen are about them. But he patiently studies and works and learns to love his adopted country while longing for the green hills of the home he can never return to. The Gold Rush offers Manjiro the opportunity to earn money for his passage if he dares to try to return, and his desire to see his family again gives him courage.
Manjiro, who is given the name John Mung, is believed to be the first Japanese to set foot in America, a teen ambassador. Preus tells the story with such detail about his life in both countries that the reader fully enters this world before Japan opened her borders. When Manjiro made his way back to Japan after a twelve-year absence, Admiral Perry was about to demand that Japan open her borders to ships needing supplies. Manjiro’s government called upon him to translate and interpret. His ambassadorship was now reversed. Manjiro’s ability to advise the Japanese government as it negotiated a new era of contact with the west earned him the samurai title he had dreamed of as a young boy.
Read a short biography of Manjiro Nakahama at Fairhaven’s MillicentLibrary’s website and at the Manjiro Society website. Holly Thompson's blog post about visiting Manjiro's birthplace in Japan has some great photos.
Award-Winning Book Challenge Status: 7/11