Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Heart of a Samurai - for Tween Tuesday

Tween Tuesday was started over at Green Bean Teen Queen as away to highlight awesome books for the 9-12 yr olds or Tweens. This week's book is:

Preus, Margi. Heart of a Samurai: Based on the True Story of Manjiro Nakahama. New York: Amulet Books, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/10054143]

Newberry Honor Book (2011)

Based on the true story of Manjiro, or John Mung as the Americans called him, Heart of a Samurai tells the story of the son of a lowly fisherman who, in the course of travelling the world, managed to forge US-Japanese relations and change the course of Japan forever.

I don't think Heart of a Samurai was a good fit for me, but I knew that going into it. After being shipwrecked right at the opening of the story, Manjiro and his friends are rescued by the John Howland. The John Howland was a whaling vessel. It hunted whales for their blubber, baleen, and the spermaceti in the heads of the especially lucrative sperm whales. The descriptions of the hunting, killing, and butchering of the whales is not overly graphic, but as someone who grew up with an uncle down the street from Sea World  (back when it was still an educational park rather than the kind of place that has roller coasters) and my own yearly unlimited pass, it was hard for me to read.*

But whaling is an important part of this book. It is Manjiro's quick thinking during a kill, along with his ability to quickly pick up the English language, that earned him his American name, John Mung, and a permanent place among the crew. At the end of the John Howland's time at sea, the captain even adopts Manjiro, now John, and raises him as his own, providing him with the best schooling Massachusetts could offer, an apprenticeship, and even his own pony. John's time in Massachusetts is fraught with prejudice. He's certainly not warmly welcomed by the whole of his new community. He faces taunts and bullying, and the captain and his wife even have to change churches twice before finding one that will accept their adopted son.

John's maturity and nobility when dealing with all of this seems to stem from his desire to live up to all that the captain has given him. While this is wonderful and may even be true, I wish that John had more faults that just the propensity to bounce right off his pony. Throughout the book he has fears and hesitations and the story definitely has conflicts, but John Mung never really does. I didn't feel like he was a realistic character who showed growth as a person rather than a historical figure.

But my biggest problem with Heart of a Samurai isn't a problem with the book at all; it's a problem with how it was described to me (and to everyone else on the front cover of the finished copy). Manjiro's life was clearly an adventurous one, but only because it actually happened. This is not an adventure book, and I think we're doing it and its readers a disservice by describing it that way. For an adventure book, it drags in places, like most of John's time in Massachusetts and the various points in his life when he's sitting around waiting to starve to death. The actual "high seas adventures" don't take up a lot of the text. Instead, it's rich with historical details and based on the life of a real mover and shaker in the international politics of the mid-1800s. Don't give this to your adventure lovers. Give it to your history buffs instead.

Book source: ARC picked up at ALA

* A historical note at the end of the book has an environmental section that talks about the long-term effects of whaling as portrayed in the book. The suggested reading also lists several books about the industry. These balance out the praising of the whaling industry that goes on in the text, but that still didn't make it any easier for me to read.

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anachronist said...

Whaling *shudders* makes me sick. I like historical books but I am not sure I would like to read this one. Thanks for your review, though - you did make fine points indeed!

Lawral the Librarian said...

It's hard to read about historical practices or conventions that make us cringe today, but sometimes it's par for the course with historical fiction, so I try to get over it. I couldn't do it with this one though, which is unfortunate. I think all the whaling stuff in the beginning kind of made it impossible for me to really like the rest of the book.