HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Heart of a Samurai
Author: Margi Preus
Illustrators: John Mung, Kawada Shoryo, and Jillian Tamaki
Publisher: Amulet Books, 2010
Language level: 1 (nothing objectionable)
Reading level: Ages 10-14
Rating: 5 stars (EXCELLENT)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Preus, Margi. Heart of a Samurai (published in 2010 by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams, 115 W. 18th St., New York City, NY 10011). Did you know that for some 250 years into the middle of the nineteenth century, Japan was a closed society where no foreigners were allowed and any Japanese citizens who went abroad could be executed upon returning because people were afraid that they had been corrupted and might poison Japan’s culture? The experiences and efforts of one young man helped to change all that. In 1841, Manjiro is a fourteen-year-old boy who lives near Shikoku, Japan. His fisherman father had died, and he is out on a fishing boat with four friends when a storm blows them to sea and casts them on a small, unknown island where they subsist until they are rescued by a passing American whaling ship, the John Howland, captained by the kindly Mr. Whitfield, who wants to adopt Manjiro.
Renamed John Mung, Manjiro begins working with the whalers. The ship stops in Honolulu, Hawaii, where his four friends decide to stay, but Manjiro chooses to sail on with Captain Whitfield who adopts him to his home in New Bedford, MA, where he settles down on Whitfield’s farm at nearby Fairhaven, attends both the Stone School House and Bartlett’s School of Navigation, and is apprenticed for a while to a cooper, all the while facing prejudice from some. During this time he grows homesick for Japan, hoping that somehow he might be able to help the Japanese overcome their prejudice against foreigners. After shipping out on the whaling ship Franklin with the promise that he might be taken to Japan, which turns out not to be true, Manjiro, by then nearly age 24, travels to California to work the gold fields in search of enough money to finance a trip back to Japan. Will he make it? And even if he does, will he survive?
Heart of a Samurai is a truly great historical/biographical fiction book for middle school age readers. The vast majority of the events and people in the story are real. The author says that some incidents and characters are fictional “to provide conflict and advance the story as well as to acknowledge the prejudice and ill will that Manjiro faced in a time and place where animosity toward Japan and its isolationist policies was in full flower.” There is a helpful glossary in the back with Japanese words, whaling terms, and sailors’ lingo, along with a bibliography for further reading. Many of the illustrations are those drawn by Manjiro himself. Anyone who is interested in Japanese culture, the history of whaling, or just a good, action-packed, adventure story will find this novel fascinating.