I saw Heart of a Samurai on the Children’s Literature shelf of my library and thought, “Hey-every once in while you need a feel good children’s story, right?” A Newberry Honor Book, and based upon “a true adventure on the high seas”, this is the perfect story- though it involved much deeper subjects than what is normally considered just a “feel good” book- and didn’t even feel like a “children’s story” to be honest.
In 1841, Manjiro and four other Japanese fishermen find the catch of their lives, only to be caught up in a storm and carried across the ocean on the Black Current to a deserted island. While the other fishermen despair over their circumstances and fear for the angry, foreign, blue-eyed barbarian demons- Manjiro keeps up hope that something good will happen. When all resources are gone from the island, they send Manjiro on a quest to find something that can sustain them: and he does. What he finds are boats to take them off of this island just off shore! Only one thing- they’re filled with blue-eyed demons. Has be brought help, or certain death?
Where Manjiro starts to adapt to and learn about these new people who rescued them, the other four wish to have nothing to do with them. These barbarians don’t know how to properly sit or how to eat right! When given the choice once they dock on the Hawaiian islands to either stay with his fellow fishermen on the islands (for “any person who leaves the country [of Japan] and later returns will be put to death- for if [they] encounter any foreign devils, [they] would be poisoned by them”) or continue on the sea and exploring the world with the captain and his crew (and be “further poisoned by their ways”), Manjiro chooses to explore the world. As Manjiro attempts to blend in with this new culture, he gains a father figure in the Captain, a new American name (John Mung), a new American life, and starts to see the prejudices in a world he was once completely unaware even existed and is trying to make sense of everything. What is right? What is wrong? What should you do? What shouldn’t a man do? Who is he? Where does he fit?
Preus really gets to the heart of prejudice and how it stems from fear due to the inability of or lack of interest in understanding something that is different from what you originally knew. Where the fishermen saw themselves as superior because they could eat with chopsticks and the barbarians could not, Manjiro suggests “it’s only easier because we’re used to it. The same way they’re used to eating with forks and knives.” Manjiro also became aware of his fellow’s “that’s the way it’s always been- and that’s the way it should always be” mentality. They fear anything that is a change or new- and the Americans are full of that! The Americans fear the Japanese, and paint them as vicious, stemmed from stories that crews going into Japanese waters have been known to have been brutally murdered just for trespassing in Japanese territory and bringing the unfamiliar with them…
when Manjiro, or John Mung, gets to America, he’s treated well by most, hated and taunted by others. One again, Preus makes note of everything that was going on in the 1840’s at that time in America: prejudice against blacks, slavery, little rights for women, the Gold Rush, the invention of cameras! “The country is suffering growing pains,” one of the characters says, and that sums it up pretty well.
This is ultimately a story about hope, freedom, and how one person can have the power and ability to change the things around you. In real life, Manjiro made a big difference: breaking Japan’s 250 year isolation from other countries. And he went on to do more. But I don’t want to give EVERYTHING away…..
I loved it and really believe everyone should read it. It’s an easy read (since it is, after all, a ‘children’s book’), has beautiful artwork, sprinkled with drawings of the various things Manjiro saw on his journeys, and enforces the importance of an open mind; don’t cling to ideas without inquiring and investigating where they came from. And it’s amazing because it truly happened to one very courageous 14-year-old boy.