Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review of Heart of a Samurai by Margie Preus

Preus, Margie. Heart of a Samurai. Abrams, 2010.

During a bad storm in 1841, the fishing boat that 14-year-old Manjiro and his companions were in is swept away from the Japanese coast, finally coming to rest at a barren island covered - at least for a short while - with hundreds of albatross. Just before they succumb to starvation, they are rescued by an American whaling ship commanded by Captain Whitfield. Manjiro's companions choose to be dropped off in Hawaii (or the Sandwich Islands as they were then known), but Manjiro has come to love life at sea and stays with the ship.

After months of whaling, Manjiro lives for a while in Massachusetts, staying with Captain Whitfield's family while attending school, helping out on the farm, and apprenticing with a cooper. Finally, his itch to go back to Japan becomes so extreme that he sails off to California, where he finds enough gold to finance his trip back to Japan. Although the Japanese rulers are very wary about Manjiro's experiences Outside, they see finally that he is a valuable resource at a time when the eastern and western worlds are finally coming in contact. This story is based quite closely on the real Manjiro's experiences and includes many sketches he made during and after his travels.

Manjiro is portrayed as an eager and curious teen with a quick mind and an adventurous spirit. It's easy to see why Captain Whitfield liked him so well that he took him into his own home, and how he came to be accepted by so many despite prejudice concerning his race and origins. That prejudice was always present in some form or another, but Manjiro seems to have been able to shrug it off, quoting his mother, "Fall down 7 times; get up 8 times."

I adore a good sea adventure, so I particularly relished the scenes that take place on various ships, spiced as they are with plenty of salty sailor slang and plenty of action. By contrast, the Massachusetts sections are more staid, with most of the tension coming from a bully who won't leave Manjiro alone. Those hoping for richly detailed gold mining scenes will be disappointed, as they are the most minimal part of the book.

Although this isn't one of those books I clasped to my chest with fervent love when I came to the last page (admit that you do this sometimes!), Heart of a Samurai is fascinating for its basis in true events and appealing for its vibrant main character. The tone was a bit reserved and I remained at a distance emotionally, but I had no problem finishing the book. The back matter is intriguing; I would have loved even more of it.

Recommended for fans of swashbuckling sea adventures like Karen Hesse's The Stowaway and Iain Lawrence's The Smugglers (and others in that series).

Winner of the 2010 Newbery Honor Award

No comments:

Post a Comment