Heart of a Samurai: What makes a hero?

Hey all you folks. I’m sorry about not being the most faithful of bloggers. I apologize for my tardiness and ask for your forgiveness, but once again, I’ve been doing way too much and taken entire mouthfuls when I should’ve only politely nibbled.

But I’m back! And even though I’ve been extremely busy, I’ve still had time to keep up with my reading, which I am eager to share with you all. Most recently I read a YA novel called Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus, a wonderful tale based on true events of a Japanese fisherboy named Manjiro who, at 14, is shipwrecked with his fellow fishermen on a fishing trip gone awry. Rescued by an American whaling boat, the Japanese passengers encounter first-hand the “monsters” of the different culture that they’ve been taught their whole lives to fear. Going to America and learning Western customs, culture, and language along the way, Manjiro alone is willing to embrace and learn about those who are different from him; everything from how they talk, act, and treat others, to what they think of him as an outsider. At the end of the novel, Manjiro gets the chance to go back to his homeland of Japan, and meets with both surprising and slightly heartwarming results.

Outside of the slightly misleading title (this is not the story of a boy’s training and quest to directly become a Samurai, but rather, a life journey that leads him to learn about and appreciate other cultures and vice versa) this is truly a wonderful book. Author Margi Preus has done enough research to make the historical details credible and engaging, whilst including in the book some of Manjiro’s original drawings of various things he encounters such as steam vessels and whales. More so, this is an interesting point of view novel; as Preus works extremely hard to present both sides of both cultures; the Japanese have positive and negative qualities; they appreciate and respect other life forms such as the whales that the white men hunt, and they have a much more strict adherence to social rules and rituals of address. On the downside, they have a skewed perception of outsiders as being blue-eyed demons, and for most of the book with exception of Manjiro, the rest of the castaway fishermen do not make any attempts to move past this cultural prejudice. On the other hand, the Americans have their points of praise and fault as well. They are shown to be at least merciful in picking up the near-dead sailors, but there are those among the crew who look down on the Japanese men. The Americans feed and teach the Japanese; even going so far as to set them up with clothes and a bit of money on their arrival to Hawaii, and the captain of the ship unofficially adopting Manjiro as his foster son. But on the flip side, you see the coarser, more violent ways of life in America, from the dangerous docks to the rough and tumble nature of the sailors themselves, who are dirty, rough, and dangerous. It is not often that you have a book give such varied and complicated descriptions of both sides in a world of crossed paths, but it opens our minds to true diversity and equality; that just because you read a book about Geisha’s does not mean you understand the culture, just because you went on a week-long mission trip does not mean you saved the world. But it’s a start, and a good one. Because as Manjiro remarks in his hopes to be a Samurai, perhaps it takes more than blood and lineage, but a type of courage.

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About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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