This month, NPR's Backseat Book Club hits the high seas for an adventurous novel called Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus. The book begins in 1841, and is based on the sprawling true-life tale of Manjiro, whose destiny was almost determined before birth as a son in a long line of fishermen. But a storm blew his life on a new course, and he became one of the first Japanese to set foot in America.
It's a story that's so fantastic, so full of twists and turns, that it would be hard to make up. Manjiro left Japan for his first fishing trip at age 14, but was swept away from the coast and shipwrecked, Preus explains. After surviving for five months on an island, he was picked up by an American whaling ship and brought to the U.S., where he studied and had many adventures.
"Finally," Preus says, Manjiro "made his way back to Japan where he had a hand in shaping modern Japan by influencing the shogun to open Japan's isolationist doors to the West."
In the 1800s, Japan was completely cut off from the outside world. It was so isolated that even details of Western life that seem mundane today — like buttons on a shirt or pockets in a pair of trousers — were exotic to young Manjiro. Manjiro and his Japanese culture seemed equally strange to the whalers who rescued him from the island where he had been stranded.
With finesse and grace, Preus gets inside the mind of young Manjiro. She serves up gorgeous details of his daily life and transports the reader in time and space. Children today can use a few clicks of the mouse to discover another country or foreign culture. But Manjiro grew up in a completely closed society, and Preus helps explain what it must have been like for Manjiro to land in a world he didn't even know existed.
"I thought how odd English must have sounded to him," Preus says. "It really must have sounded like nonsense when he heard it the first time."
Manjiro describes the unfamiliar features of the people who rescue him — their blue eyes, their flat noses, their facial hair. "They were so isolated where they lived that they really did not see anyone who was not Japanese," Preus explains. "All the different colors and permutations of humanity that we have on the globe would not have been anyone he would have seen."
The Japanese had all sorts of language they used to describe the "other." One of the names used to refer to the foreigners was "butter stinker." "These Westerners smelled bad to them, and they believed that the reason they smelled bad was because they ate butter," Preus explains.
One of those "butter stinkers" was Capt. John Whitfield, who takes Manjiro under his wing and brings him back to his home state of Massachusetts. They find in each other the family they need — and Manjiro finds out what it means to be American. In one passage, Manjiro has an "aha" moment as he competes in a horse race.
"Independent!" he shouted at the top of his lungs. What was this feeling? — This out in the open, wind in the hair, whooping and hollering, rip-roaring feeling? It was something he felt often in America, this land of whoopers and hollerers, of people who laughed whenever they felt like it, sang as they strolled down the country roads and whistled inside the house if so moved. They went here and there, traveling to far away places in fast moving machines, and nobody troubled them about who they were, or where they were going, or what business they had in that place. This feeling he realized — as the road raced beneath him and the bright green spring forest rushed by and the sky was a moving ocean of blue — this was the feeling of freedom.
Freedom was a foreign feeling to a boy who had grown up in a society where life was so carefully proscribed. "They had to live in certain kinds of houses," Preus says. "They could only eat certain kinds of foods, and even as children they could only play with certain kinds of toys depending upon what their status was in life."
Our Book Club readers had great questions for Preus, and several came from Hastings Middle School in Fairhaven, Mass., one of the towns where Manjiro actually lived when he came to America. One student was curious to know whether Preus came to her town to do research for the book. Preus says she visited Fairhaven, and New Bedford, Conn., as well.
"It was interesting to be there to see the places where he lived and just to walk around on the streets," Preus explains. "All of that really helped inform my feelings about him as a character and about the people and ... about the place."
Preus also ventured to Manjiro's hometown in Japan, where she learned more about what made him tick. "I felt that the ruggedness of the countryside where he lived would have given him a kind of fierce independent nature," Preus says. "And the fact that they were so remote from Edo or Tokyo and all the places of power may have also fostered a kind of independence of spirit."
When Manjiro returned to Japan and became a samurai, his experience in America and knowledge of English was instrumental. He was the primary force behind Japan's move from isolationism to open-door diplomacy.
When you open the pages of Heart of a Samurai you'll discover more than just the imagined life of Manjiro. You also find his drawings — all kinds of artifacts from his life in Japan and a glossary of Japanese terms and sailors' lingo.
And with that, it's time for us to sail on to our next reading adventure.
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