The Newbery Award, given by the American Library Association for “the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature” during the previous year, is still the gold standard for teachers and librarians, and an interesting cultural marker. Some years the medal (or actually medals, since there are usually 2-4 honor books chosen as well) goes to authors who have won before. Sometimes–like this year–the majority of authors are first-time winners, and a significant number of books were the author’s first book. Sometimes the winners are quirky, like Niel Gaimon’s The Graveyard Book, other times they’re trendy and “message-driven” (even if the message is a bit garbled) like The Higher Power of Lucky. Sometimes they’ve received a good deal of buzz before the award and other times they come out of the blue, causing professionals in the business to scratch their heads and say, “Now, which title was that?”
This year, not only the gold medal but two out of three silver medals went to first-time authors. Slowly, I’m reading my way through them all.
NEWBERY HONOR: Heart of a Samurai, by Margi Preus, Amulet Books, 277 pages plus historical note and glossary. Readers ages 10-14.
This is the true story of Manjiro, a young Japanese fisherman, who with five companions was shipwrecked on “Bird Island” (a rock covered with albatross and gulls) in the northern Pacific, 1841. They are dying of starvation when American sailors on the John Howard, a whaler out of New England, sight and rescue them. Captain John Whitfield transports the boys to Hawaii, where most of them choose to stay. But Manjiro, an unusually curious and adventurous youth, chooses to sign on for the rest of the voyage. The Captain comes to regard the boy as a son, as they spend hours together “at the bulwark of the John Howard, talking into the night, their words given to the darkness for safekeeping.” These strange Americans stir Manjiro’s imagination–he longs to see America for himself.
In New Bedford, Massachusetts, he faces bigotry and fear, but most of his neighbors accept him and he makes some close friends. He also learns to ride a horse, develops a crush on a girl, and embraces Christianity (at least on a cultural level) by joining a church. (It was a Unitarian church–unfortunately the only church that didn’t insist he sit with the “colored” parishioners in the balcony. The novel doesn’t identify it as Unitarian, but an article in American Heritage magazine fills in the background: “Manjiro, the man who discovered America,” Dec. 1956. Not available online (?) but many public libraries have complete sets of American Heritage and the article is well worth reading.)
Eventually homesickness intervenes and he signs on aboard another whaler captained by a former shipmate. The man turn turns out to be mentally unstable, inspiring a successful mutiny led by Manjiro. Other adventures include a stop in California just in time for the Gold Rush, he pans out an egg-sized nugget that finances his voyage to Hawaii–and then, with his Japanese friends in tow, back to Japan.
Home at last, Manjiro and his friends are greeted with suspicion and held under a kind of house arrest, followed by actual prison in Nagasaki (“Just a formality”) for a total of one and a half years. Finally he is allowed to go back to his home village and a joyful reunion with his family, after twelve years’ absence. But with no regrets: “He had found a new way of seeing the world. Not with fear, but with wonder.”
Since Heart of a Samurai is a novelized biography, the action is linear and episodic, but unified around the theme of a stranger in a strange land. Its pages reveal such an appealing character, as Manjiro evidently was in real life, that the reader wants to share his discoveries. He finds Americans to be “good-hearted, generous and . . . He didn’t have a name for it, but it seemed natural, like second nature, for them to be kind to others while expecting nothing in return.” Americans have their unfriendly, pushy, bigoted representatives, and Manjiro experiences that as well.
But when he is imprisoned by his own people and accused of being a spy for a hostile entity, he protests: “America is strong, yes. It has many weapons. But it isn’t angry! America doesn’t want to attack Japan!” “Strong but not angry” might serve as a rough thumbnail sketch of American foreign policy. Manjiro went on to high honor in his homeland, receiving a second name and becoming an advisor to the Emperor and a liaison between Imperial Japan and the United States. His story is encouraging and uplifting, as well as a window both to the past and to another culture. Highly recommended!
Another point: the book is physically beautiful. Manjiro was a gifted artist and some of the drawings that illustrate his story are his own. The sea and whaling motif decorates the book throughout, reflecting the delicate characteristics of Japanese painting.
Questions to talk about:
Manjiro’s attitude toward his American rescuers is very different from his fellow fishermen. How was it different, and what qualities of character contributed to his attitude?
What can you tell about Japan from reading this book? How was Manjiro “typically” Japanese? How was he more like his adopted country, America?