note: I digress near the end, between asterisks. I kept the digression in order to brag on my daughter, possibly illustrate a point, and because this blog is not just about Books, but the Reading of Books and the Writing about Reading. I would have cut it due to the sense that I require a second reading for the sake of an argument, but cannot find a strong enough motivation (yet) for a second reading and a cut. Feel free to spring past the asterisked section which is a conversation with the self followed by the 10 5/6s-year-old’s two cents on the subject.
277-301 pages, hardcover.
In 1841, fourteen-year-old Manjiro and four others are caught in a storm and are abandoned on a big rock/island. An American ship, teeming with “barbarians” eventually comes to their aide. Since Japan insists on isolation, their borders are closed to Westerners and to any of their own countrymen who’ve drifted too far. The crew has little choice but to go with the American vessel and away from Japan and everything they’ve ever known.
“Manjiro’s curiosity overcomes his fear of the “barbarians.” He joins in the work of the waling vessel, eager to learn everything he can about this new culture. Over the next ten years, Manjiro travels the high seas, visiting places he never dreamed existed, including America. It is a time filled with new experiences and adventure, as well as friendship and treachery. Manjiro sustains himself on a dream of returning home and somehow—though he knows it is impossible for a simple fisherman—becoming a samurai.
Will he ever be able to go back to his native land? And if he does, will he be welcomed or condemned.” dust jacket.
For those young readers daunted by a historical fiction that is heavy on the biography, Margi Preus would tempt you with Heart of a Samurai. One, the title has samurai, that is exciting. Two, the cover has a hero set for an adventure, deceivingly perched at the prow of the ship instead of at the oars where he would really be. “A Novel inspired by a true adventure on the high seas,” the cover reads—that part isn’t deceptive. And the dust jacket suggests an uncertain outcome. You have to read to find out.
While much of the Manjiro’s own culture is revealed in an enjoyable and not overtly educational way, Heart of a Samurai is an American novel. A boy with no hope of becoming more than his fumbling and impoverished self, cast as a fisherman as all the relatives before him, does rise above adversity and social strata. His dreams (which seems to come out of nowhere, like the American ship) do come true. In the novel, the West has come to Japan and found its first convert in Manjiro.
Preus tempts the those reluctant to the historical fiction drama and succeeds. I am basing this on my daughter, who loved the book and usually resists said genre, and on myself who tends to avoid biographies and memoirs and wasn’t overly nauseated by Preus’ fictional take on Manjiro.
What immediately strikes the reader and lures them in is Manjiro and company’s perspective as non-white non-westerners: “What lies there, across the sea? […] “Barbarians live there. Demons with hairy faces, big noses, and blue eyes!” (1). And can anything be better than Manjiro’s first encounter with these “barbarians?” The descriptions are marvelous.
“There did not seem to be any tails, horns, or fangs among them. There were some alarmingly hairy faces and plenty of big noses though! Six big noses, in fact: one long and hooked, two long and straight, one squashed and wide, one turned up at the end, and another as big and red as a radish.” (27)
As are the assumptions, e.g. “It was clear these creatures didn’t understand. Then Manjiro remembered. It was said the barbarians were simple-minded.” (27). Throughout the novel Manjiro returns to the realizations that both nations have several things in common.
Manjiro must overcome his fears. Being naturally curious helps. Manjiro is ever asking questions. Unlike his companions, Manjiro makes the attempt to interact with and learn the language of the American crewman. He crosses cultural and social lines in forming a relationship with the captain. Importantly, his predicaments and his subsequent responses are fascinating.
Preus provides Historical Notes at the end of the book. Here, she tells the reader how closely the story stays and where it veers and what liberties were taken. Other than assuming Manjiro’s thoughts and feelings and creating a few representative characters, Preus stays thrillingly close to Historical Facts. That said, she leaves plenty of the foreignness of Japan and the late 1800s America unexplored. The glimpses tantalize. The greatest success of this novel is the way it peaks the interest to investigate cultural and/or political practices of that time frame—both Japanese and American. Natalya is curious about the May Day phenomena. Many times I was caught mumbling, “Oh, is that where that phrase comes from? I should look that up.”
Preus takes her well-researched subjects and weaves it into a story without embellishing the lines into a several hundred page novel. This is very much appreciated. The only difficulty in the spareness, that I noted, was in the story’s ability to move Manjiro from boy to man.
Necessarily (or no) Manjiro is seen as a boy. Even at age 14 in 1841 and as the man of the house, he is still portrayed as childlike, curious and naïve and somewhat inept. The world is yet open to him as are the regards to anothers’ feelings. He is then given an Americanized name, John Mung, and where this might change the tide he is soon adopted by the captain and treated like a son, and still maintained in childlike terms. Manjiro’s adolescent escapades (which creates real empathy) should propel him into manhood and yet are somehow unrealized. Is it because of the outcome of the horse race and the May Day basket? Is it because he returns to a whaling ship as an underling, after being a sickly cooper smith apprentice?
I struggle with where the story might fail in this regard, understanding that any sense of failure may only be detected by myself—imply away. The problem is: If I am to see Manjiro/John Mung to have risen above anything, he must move from the boy at the beginning to the man at the end; from subservient and adrift to an empowered position. This is only because of how his being childlike (which is notably accentuated by his foreignness) appears to represent where he started; small and vulnerable in a big world. The story seems to progress without him, using the same paper doll for every scene. Consistency of internalized characterization becomes crippling in effect. The cues that his physical stature changes falls beneath the constancy Manjiro’s core person. I mean, even Jolly changes… —It could be that it is the audience who is asked to change, evolving the reader in the course of the novel rather than the protagonist—which is risky (but apparently rewarded).
—Then there is a reading where the idea (trope) of “a child shall lead them” prevails. I suppose this is to empower the child reader. Maintain a childlike curiosity, idealism, and resilience and you will survive the inevitable adversity only to overcome and lead a people out of their adultlike ignorance and cynicism on into the future, which moves forward, not backward. Again, opting for the growing of the reader over the change in the protagonist.
—Natalya’s theory (and easily the best one): If he changed, he would’ve become a bad guy. In which I explicate: Manjiro changes in physical stature, but internally maintains a childlike form; childlike meaning: curious, open to others, resilient, optimistic. If he changed, he would’ve become a bad guy—an adult; which equates to unmovable, set, cynical, isolated [which noticeably equates to Japan who is viewed as the older of the two nations (and not just because it is)]. The adult-like attributes (as listed) are negative and inhibiting and the seat of conflict. They are the bad guys. But good news, they can change, they can be persuaded!
In the humorous and criticizing revelation that both Japan and America find themselves the superior nation/culture, who wins in the end? Which nation makes the actual change? Whispers perhaps are more powerful armament over guns, but so much depends on perspective—a perspective that would bridge two cultures/nations—perspective Manjiro/John Mung has to offer—then, and now.
In the end, Heart of a Samurai is entertaining, educational, and proves ideologically satisfying. It is a short, attractive read with illustrations by John Mung, Historical Notes, a Glossary, and knowledge that it will intrigue the reader into further study—e.g. a “Bibliography and Suggested Reading” section, pages 297-301. This novel may well cure a reader of their reluctance in approaching non-fictional or fictional biographies.