Heart of a Samurai

Preus, Margi (2010). Heart of a Samurai. New York: Amulet Books.

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Heart of a Samurai is the fictional account of a Japanese teenager’s unprecedented encounter with America in the mid 1800’s. Shipwrecked at the age of fourteen, Manjiro, (also known by his American name, John Mung), is rescued by a whaling vessel, along with four of his Japanese shipmates. After sailing for two years with the crew of the John Howland, Manjiro returns to the United States with Captain Whitfield, who later adopts him. In the book, Manjiro must address fears based on preconceived ideas,  homesickness, and choose between a myriad of opportunities placed before him.

To give you a taste of Pruis’ writing style, here is an excerpt that shows the inner struggle Manjiro is going through. He has just been informed by a Japanese shipmate that the choice to stay with the rescued sailors from his own country, or go on to America with Captain Whitfield, was to be his own:

“Manjiro opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. Thoughts collided in his mind. To see America…but to possibly miss a chance to return home to his mother and family. To learn a thousand new things…but to go to a strange place where people might hate and reject him. To feel again the lift of his heart when the sails filled with wind and the ship seemed to soar over the ocean…but to have to say goodbye to his comrades with whom he’d shared so much…” (Pruis, p,74)

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In Japan Manjiro was being raised as a Buddhist. Not much mention is made of this, other than a reference to early missionaries trying to change not only the beliefs of the Japanese people, but their lifestyles as well. John Mung’s adoptive family must change churches twice before finding one accepting of their new son, but it is clear that somewhere along the way, he was presented with the gospel, for in his final letter to Captain Whitfield  before returning to Japan he writes:

“I hope you will never forget me, for I have thought about you day after day; you are my best friend on earth, besides the great God.” (Pruis, p.251)

In this her first novel, Margi Preus successfully weaves together a number of historical accuracies into creative writing. The book is informative in its descriptions of nineteenth century whaling, the codes of the Samurai, the  California Gold Rush, and Japanese and American perceptions of one another in the mid-nineteenth century. Heart of a Samurai is suitable as a read-aloud for any age, and as an independent read for grades six through eight. It could be used in conjunction with Commodore Perry and Land of the Shogun, perhaps reading  this aloud and having the kids read Preus’ book on their own. (Manjiro’s adventure, and consequent ability to counsel and interpret for the Japanese government, was instrumental in paving the way for the end to 250 years of Japanese isolationsism). It can also be connected to Carry on, Mr. Bowditch, the story of Nathaniel Bowditch, as after returning to Japan, Manjiro translates his book The New American Practical Navigator into Japanese. (Jean Lee Latham’s Carry on, Mr. Bowditch was awarded the Newbery medal in 1956).

In addition to being a Newbery honor (2011), Heart of a Samurai made the Best Children’s Books of the Year lists for Bank Street College, the New York Public Library, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. Beautifully done!

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