Friday, January 21, 2011

Book Review: Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus is another of the Newbery Honor winners for 2011.   This is a book that my son read, and deemed pretty good, but it never had much attention among his Newbery Club (nor the others I checked online), so I hadn't read it.  But that was my loss.  After it was honored by the Newbery Committee, I read it and found it to be quite a wonderful book.  I still, personally, prefer the books that were on my final list, but I enjoyed it a lot and could at least see why it might have won a Newbery Honor, which is still more than I can say for Dark Emperor (good book, but not exception to my point of view).

Heart of a Samurai is the fictionalized account of a real event; a 14 year-old Japanese boy named Manjiro who was stranded with his friends on a deserted island in 1841 and then picked up by an American whaling vessel.  Japan maintained a very isolationist policy then, so all outsiders were considered "barbarians"; nonetheless, Manjiro comes to appreciate his barbarian saviors, especially the compassionate Captain Whitfield, and eventually agrees to his offer to see the world beyond what the Japanese people had ever imagined.

The book contains a lot of historical truth, including incorporating Manjiro's drawings of his adventures (although attributed to his American name of John Mung).  It's the kind of book that I think make great Newbery candidates; it puts the reader inside the head of a character that is probably QUITE unlike them, preferably at a time or in a culture that is so different that they can't imagine it.  So it is a great area of growth as this secluded Japanese boy encounters the whole huge world that has been denied to him by his government's policy.  However, along with the wonderful things he sees, he must also deal with prejudice from Westerners who have never seen Japanese and who believe them to be equally "barbarian."

In the end, Manjiro/Mung wrestles with that most middle school of questions--Who am I?  Where do I belong?  I don't seem to fit in with American culture--but will I fit in with Japanese culture?  His pathway through life, as he explores those questions, is not completely predictable, but is especially compelling because it is (mostly) a true story.

So this is an excellent book on many levels...not just the reading and the illustrations, but also on a psychological level as well as a tale of the 19th century interactions between the US and Japan.  As I said, it didn't supplant any of my top choices, but I can certainly embrace it as a Newbery award-worth book.

And how lucky for us that we happen to be studying 19th century history this year!

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