Posts Tagged ‘Heart of A Samurai’
How would you react if someone greeted you with a bow or by avoiding eye contact? Captain Whitfield reacted with impatience, which puzzled Manjiro and his fishermen companions. To them, those actions showed politeness. Other similar examples of miscommunication between cultures abound in Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus, the fictionalized true story of how a Japanese teenage fisherman named Manjiro discovered America in 1841 and how as an adult he persuaded Japan to ease open its boundaries. As such, it will interest historical fiction buffs and those seeking multicultural novels. Because Heart of a Samurai also involves sea travel, whaling expeditions, mutiny, and storms, it’ll also appeal to anyone who likes adventure stories.
Margi Preus visited Japan twice, which no doubt helped with her convincing portrayal of Manjiro and his companions. At first, the five are simply steering their fishing boat towards home. Except for their talk of samurai and swords, and geisha and kimonos, the five could have been from anywhere. The details don’t really become more important when the five encounter Americans, yet even then Preus delivers. If your country had shut itself off from the rest of the world, how would you react to meeting outsiders? Would your clothes differ? What about your mannerisms? Perhaps most telling, if you and the outsiders spoke in different languages, how would you communicate? In every situation, Preus helps me see what five fisherman in 1841 might have felt.
All of these situations are also explored within the context of a story that is already incredibly interesting. Manjiro and his companions get caught in storm. Even when they find land, their peril has just begun. Their boat capsizes, Jusuke injures his leg, and starvation becomes imminent. Then when rescue happens, it comes in the form of “barbarians”. Okay, the strangers didn’t have tails, horns, or fangs, but there were hairy faces and big noses. Manjiro and his companions might have been better off being left alone to die. At least, this is how Manjiro viewed their predicament. On the flip side, the strangers viewed the Manjiro and his companions as pagans and cannibals and spies. In less capable hands, Heart of a Samurai could have amounted to a simplistic story of prejudice, that all too easily transforms into peace and harmony. It could also have easily turned into a condemnatory tale of how American whalers, church leaders, teachers, and students all failed to accept an outsider. To a certain extent, this is what happened. Yet prejudice is rarely that simple. What I appreciated most about Heart of a Samurai is that neither side is portrayed as being right or wrong; rather people from both cultures at times need to work to understand each other’s perspectives.
Heart of a Samurai isn’t flawless. When Manjiro inquires about the disappearance of a shipmate, the rest of the crew respond with lines such as: “Jolly took a dickey run and met his oppos” and “Jolly had the devil to pay and no pitch hot.” Manjiro wonders what they were talking about and decides that English is a difficult language, but to be honest I couldn’t understand the banter either. When Captain Whitfield docks his ship, he takes a wife whom we rarely hear about again. Although the real captain does take a wife at this time, and so Preus is keeping to the facts, it might have been nice to provide her with a larger role. Finally, there’s an incident with Manjiro and a bully, which feels cliché regardless of whether it has roots in truth.
Because of an author’s need to remain faithful to actual events, the risk of historical fiction is that it can read like a dry narrative. In contrast, Heart of a Samurai poignantly explores universal themes. Some are fairly familiar such as that of growing up and finding one’s place in the world. Early on, Manjiro and Goemon share dreams of what they wanted to be when they grew up, declare themselves the Samurai of Bird Island, and play fight with swords made out of driftwood. There is also a subtle but meaningful moment when Manjiro watches a snail and wonders where it is going with such purpose. Other themes have been less frequently explored but are equally important such as how to negotiate the precarious balance between two worlds that one loves. I like Manjiro’s first reaction to seeing a world map. He can’t read the words on it, but imagines that they say: “Come and see!” My favorite scene is a bittersweet one: “He had encountered both beauty and pain. Now he understood that was how it would always be.” Through moments like these, Preus makes Manjiro feel like a real person.
It was fun to read my second book in one month about adventure on the high sea, my first being the equally exceptional Fish by Gregory Mone. I also appreciated learning about a pivotal moment in Japan’s history. Yet what I loved most about Heart of a Samurai is how Preus introduced me to an inspiring individual whom I wish I could have known, within the context of an enthralling story.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
How would you rate this book?