Monday, January 23, 2012

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus (Abrams, 2010)

Summary from publisher:
In 1841, fourteen-year-old Manjiro and his four friends find themselves stranded on a deserted island after a storm at sea.  Beyond the island is the unknown, filled with monsters, demons, and barbarians. Or so they've been told.  They know they cannot return to their homes in Japan -- the country's borders are closed both to foreigners and to citizens who have strayed.  No one may enter, under penalty of imprisonment and even death!
One day an American ship passes near the island and takes the castaways aboard.  Manjiro's curiousity overcomes his fear of the "barbarians."  He joins in the work of the whaling 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 a 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?

I wasn't quite sure what to expect based on the jacket blurb for this book.   I felt like this book could go one of two ways, either it would be adventure-filled and fascinating or it would be BORING, with tedious descriptions of whaling a la Moby Dick.  I am happy to report this book was AWESOME!  I found myself completely captivated by Manjiro and his adventures, wondering what would happen to him next and how could he possibly get back to Japan.  There were times when I thought things in his life lined up just a bit too neatly, but then I would remember the novel was based on the life of a real person.  Most of these things really did happen to Manjiro!

Heart of a Samurai is not only a peek into Japanese culture, but also a window to 19th century whaling culture and 19th century America.  It teaches lessons about hard work, dreams, and acceptance without being preachy.  I've had several students read this book this year, and each of them raved about how exciting Manjiro's story was and how determined he was to reach his dream of returning to Japan.  To me, that speaks volumes.

Boys and girls who love adventure stories are sure to enjoy Manjiro's struggles and celebrations as he travels the world on a whaling ship!

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