Heart of a Samurai
by Margi Preus
This page-turning salty adventure is based on a true story about bridging a cultural and geographic divide. A group of Japanese fishermen, blown way off course by a storm at sea, winds up on a deserted island in the Pacific in 1841. They are rescued by “barbarians”—Americans aboard a whaling ship called the John Howland. The story unfolds through the eyes of Manjiro, who is 14 at the time of the rescue, and whose curious nature and open-mindedness make him believe he would be well-suited to the life of a samurai. In Japan in the 19th century, however, a boy born to a fisherman carries on as a fisherman, as does his son, and his son after him. But when Manjiro proves himself an able seaman, Captain Whitman invites the boy (whom crew members name John Mung) to return to America with him and be raised as his son. At that time, Japanese believed that their countrymen who went too far offshore should be imprisoned, and for Manjiro, the captain’s offer is one he cannot refuse—especially after he asks the boy, “What are your hopes and dreams?”
Through Manjiro’s perspective, we learn the marked differences between the two cultures, as well as the values they share. At the beginning of his journey with the American whalers, Manjiro notes, “These were certainly barbarians if they killed animals to make shoes! Such a thing was against the law in Japan.” Yet much later, when Manjiro finds himself in the position of harpooning a whale, “he remembered how repulsed he’d been that these foreigners could kill so cruelly.” His ability to reflect on his own actions and to judge himself by the same standards by which he measures others earns him the respect of his fellow shipmates and also the New England townsfolk where he makes his home with Captain Whitfield. “Americans and the Japanese, when you boiled it down, were more alike than they would ever admit,” Manjiro thinks. “They both thought they were better than other people—and each thought they were better than the other!” The author makes a compelling case for the evolution of the teen who would grow up to play such a pivotal role in the changing of Western attitudes toward Japan, and Japan’s attitudes toward the West. If your teen has an interest in history, adventure, whaling or Japan, this fascinating book will certainly hold his or her attention.