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Heart of a Samurai: Based on the True Story of Nakahama Manjiro, by Margi Preus, 301 pp, RL 4

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preuss with stunning cover art by Jillian Tamaki, won the Caldecott Honor Award in 2011 and is now available in paperback. Preus takes the real life, action packed story of Nakahama Manjiro and condenses it into 300 pages and five parts. While Heart of a Samurai is a work of historical fiction, Preus includes pieces of original artwork by Manjiro and other sources, as well as an Epilogue, Historical Note, Glossary and Bibliography and Suggested Reading. Manjiro's story and the time that he lived in are so full of amazing incidents and innovations that I have no doubt readers will want to learn more. 

In 1841, Japan is a closed society. Outsiders are not welcome and Japanese do not travel. In fact, if a Japanese citizen is lost at sea and returns home, they are reportedly put to death. Japan is also a hierarchical society. If you are born a poor fisherman you stay a poor fisherman. Despite this, fourteen year old Manjiro has a curious mind and a dream of becoming a samurai. When a fruitless trip with three fishermen and another boy like himself seems to be taking a turn for the better, a storm surprises them and they find themselves in adrift foreign waters, far from home and land. Eventually, they drift to what they come to call Bird Island,  now known as the island of Tori-shima. The men and boys survive, just barely, by capturing and eating the birds on the island as well as whatever sea creatures they can net. They live this way for almost six months until the whaling ship John Howland, commanded by Captain William H Whitfield, a generous and empathetic man, sails near Bird Island and rescues them. Goemon, Denzo, Toraemon and Jusuke keep to themselves on the ship by Manjiro is curious and eager to learn and soon is picking up English words. While he makes a friend of the captain, he also makes an enemy in Jolly, the head Harpooner on board who is unashamedly vocal about his prejudices. When the John Howland drops anchor in Honolulu a few months later, Manjiro goes against the wishes of his countrymen, who have been given clothes and silver by the captain, and stays on ton continue whaling with the crew of the John Howland where Captain Whitfield renames him John Mung and takes him under his wing.

Manjiro returns to America with Captain Whitfield and is enrolled in school, where prejudice continues to make his life difficult. Manjiro studies navigation for a year and later in life translates the his textbooks into Japanese, especially impressive since he never learned how to read and write in his own language. When Captain Whitfield, now married with a son, heads out to sea again, Manjiro is not far behind. He finds himself on another whaling ship that is soon in turmoil and, after leaving the mentally ill Captain in Manila, Manjiro is made Harpooner. The voyage leaves him with enough pay ($350.00) to make his way to California and pan for gold where he earns himself an small fortune ($600.00.) From there, he heads to Honolulu to pay the way for his friends to return to their homeland. In 1851 they arrive in Okinawa and are taken into custody, as is Japanese custom. However, the men are taken  treated well. After months of questioning they are allowed to return to their home village, although in 1853 Manjiro is made a samurai by the shogunate government, fulfilling his lifelong dream. He goes on to have an important political life, helping his country end their isolationism and learn from the innovations the rest of the world has been benefitting from. In fact, Manjiro was the first Japanese to ride a railroad, sail in a steamship, officer an American vessel and command a Trans-Pacific voyage. He definitely had an amazing life and Preus takes his story and tells it well in Heart of a Samurai, making it clear that his amazing life was more than just being in the right place at the right time. Nakahama Manjiro, despite his  low birth, was, beyond a doubt, a brave, resourceful person who's curiosity, sharp intellect and humanity lead him to live a truly astonishing life. In fact, to this day the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society continues to preserve the historical artifacts left behind by the two men as well as maintain a friendship with Tosashimizu, Manjiro's home town.

Readers who enjoyed Heart of a Samurai  will like Stowaway by Karen Hesse, the fictionalized story of Nicholas Young, the real-life boy who stowed away on the Endeavour and made the voyage around the world with Capatain Cook when he was eleven.

For an interesting at the evolution of the cover of Heart of a Samurai, check out Mishaps and Adventures, the super-coll blog by Chad Beckerman, art director for Abrams.


Jeremy said…
I couldn't interest my kids in trying this one, but I sure enjoyed it myself!
Tanya said…
I'm not surprised. It's a bit dry (despite all the ocean, ha ha.) As an adult, it was fascinating to me, just thinking about the historical implications. But, it takes just the right kind of story and story teller to make historical fiction appeal to kids. Let me know when you do find (or what you have found) in the realm of historical fiction that your kids do like.

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