The Heart of a Samurai

by Margi Preus
ages: 10+
First sentence: “Manjiro squinted across the expanse of glittering sea at the line of dark clouds forming on the horizon.”
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I wanted to like this one. The cover is pretty, it won a Newebery Honor this year, and the cover calls it a “novel inspired by a true adventure on the high seas.”

Manjiro is a 14-year-old Japanese boy in the mid-1800s. He’s from a small fishing village, and doesn’t have much chance for a future. He signs on with a fishing boat, which gets lost at sea in a storm. Eventually, they get washed up on an island, and a while later are rescued by an American whaling ship. Manjiro spends the next 10 years away from Japan, most of it on a ship, learning English and experiencing everything from the freedom of the open sea, to new technology, to racism, to the opportunities that America offers that Japan doesn’t. He eventually returns to Japan, to a less-than-amiable reception, but eventually helps the Japanese end 250 years of isolationism.

The story is all fine and good, but the book just fell flat. (At least it was a quick read.) All the things I was interested in: being stranded on an island, experiences on a whaling ship, racism in mid-1800s New England all got glossed over. While there was conflict, there wasn’t enough to keep the story interesting enough. And it was basically just a retelling of the years Manjiro was away from Japan, with an epilogue about his time in the government after his return. It would have worked better as non-fiction, if that’s all the author was going to do.

It could have been an interesting book. Disappointing.

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3 thoughts on “The Heart of a Samurai

  1. I like that you feel the same way about “quick reads” as me. If I don't like a book but it was at least short and quick I don't loathe it as much.

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  2. Yeah, I had trouble with the book too. As fiction, the story ended as they approached Japan from the sea, but didn't get there. Like, “he gazed out towards his lost country, knowing he'd be home soon.” But then an epilogue that explained what really happened.

    But as it was, it was a fiction/nonfiction hybrid – and not in a good way. Like you said, disappointing.

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