I’d written about Heart of a Samurai a few weeks ago in the context of the lovely cover illustration by Jillian Tamaki, and since then, in the way these things happen, I’ve been seeing Tamaki’s work all over the internet, especially her embroidered covers of classic novels for Penguin. Yes, those covers, which The Atlantic (rather condescendingly, IMO) termed “Etsy and Books Collide.” Anyway, Tamaki is attending the Toronto Comics Arts Festival on May 7 and 8, and I’m planning to see her there, get her to doodle on my forearm, and then tattoo her work into permanency. Activating jealousy shield, now.
Onward to the review of the book, which deservedly recently won the 2010 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in the MG category. (The runner-up was the equally deserving Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins, which, in a pleasing convergence, I reviewed for the Asian Review of Books as well .)
It’s 1841 in Shikoku, Japan, and fourteen-year-old Manjiro is on a fishing boat, waiting to catch his dinner. Manjiro has always wondered what lies on the other side of the ocean, and he’s soon going to find out — when a freak storm hits the fishing boat, the crew is shipwrecked on a remote island until an American whaling ship rescues them. The Japanese now wonder if death by starvation might have been preferable: don’t the blue-eyed barbarians plan to cook them in the big pots on board?
Japan, which has long been in the grip of isolationist policies and misinformation, does not allow foreign ships to approach its shores, and the whaler hence drops the Japanese off at Honolulu. The Captain however has grown fond of the curious, intelligent Manjiro, and offers to take him to America as his adopted son. Now sixteen, now adept at whaling, and now called John Mung, Manjiro reaches Fairhaven, Mass., thus becoming the first Japanese person to set foot on American soil. But even as he develops an appreciation for fresh-baked bread and horse riding, family and homeland are never far from his mind.
Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus offers a bounty of adventure and comedy (fuelled by cultural misunderstanding), with the added bonus that it’s all true. Preus’s primary sources include Manjiro’s story, which he narrated in 1852 and which was subsequently transcribed in a four-volume book, the Hyoson Kiryaku. Thrillingly, Heart… features Manjiro’s own drawings, and the epilogue includes his real-life portrait.
Manjiro is a charming protagonist, open-minded and enthusiastic about change even when it’s thrust upon him, and Preus’s fuss-free prose invests his tale with immediacy — we’re right there in Manjiro’s soggy shoes on a drenched boat, holding on to a harpoon than “seemed no more than… a darning needle” next to a whale, or clinging to a sea-turtle’s flipper as it races through the ocean. And I could gaze for hours at Jillian Tamaki’s hypnotically lovely jacket illustration; it’s as though we’re sitting in a glass-bottomed boat with the massive box of the whale’s head passing beneath. This is a beautifully crafted book in every sense.
Very occasionally, Manjiro’s opinions on cross-cultural empathy seem a bit message-y, but Preus mostly focuses on differences between the daily business of life in the two countries, and the narrative has an intimacy that’s often absent in historical fiction. And what charged history this is. In 1853, when Commodore Perry demanded American access to Japanese ports, Manjiro acted as the official interpreter. Manjiro’s last port-of-call before he finally met his family was Nagasaki. The reader’s knowledge of the heft of events to come gives Manjiro’s story a fearful resonance; most will read this book not just to know what happened next (a compelling reason indeed for this novel), but to ponder how a single life may harbor seeds of world-changing events. And as for the history-averse — Manjiro’s whaling adventures should convert even hardened Gameboy addicts to reading. Recommended.
(This review appears in the current edition of the Asian Review of Books).