Heart of a Samurai
What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this Newbery Honor book is based on fact and dense with historical interest, delving into Japanese isolationism, the whaling industry, and prejudice and racism in both the U.S. and Japan in the early 1800s. The author is fair and balanced in her portrayal of brutal whaling practices as well as often-clashing cultural values in Japan and the U.S. Examples of violence and racial prejudice are minimal, and always in service to the story.
What's the story?
Stranded on a barren island after their ship sank in 1841, five Japanese fishermen find themselves rescued by an American whaling ship. Manjiro, 14, and his crewmates thought non-Japanese were barbarians and monsters, but Manjiro gives himself over to the adventure. Unable to return to Japan, he learns English and the ways of the Western crew, and settles briefly in New England as the captain’s adopted son. Manjiro – believed to be the first from the closed country of Japan to visit America – enters school, confronts racism, and eventually heads west in search of gold to finance an attempt to return to Japan. Through it all, the boy who thought his fantasy of becoming a samurai was beyond reach proves himself worthy of the honor.
Is it any good?
Based on the true story of Manjiro’s travels, this story offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of the early 19th century. It touches on American aspirations as a global power as well as Japan’s isolation. The author's descriptions of life on a whaling ship feel particularly authentic, and she ably uses Manjiro’s adventures to touch on economic, cultural, and political themes.
Readers may find thin characters more educational than interesting, and dialogue overstuffed with eager historical notes. Indeed, the characters never quite get off the page, but the broader tale itself is captivating. Like Manjiro, readers will find much to pique their interest, and the author helpfully recommends plenty of extra reading. The book is beautifully presented, with drawings by Manjiro, quotations from Hagakure: Book of the Samurai, and extensive supporting material.
Families can talk about...
Families can talk about the difference between historical fiction and biography. Why do you think the author chose to write Manjiro's story this way?
Manjiro forever lived under a “cloud of suspicion” after his homecoming, the author says. By the novel’s end, he seems restless, fully at home neither in America nor in Japan. How do you think his experience compares to that of immigrants today?