Summer is wrapping up and you want to give the kids a bit of culture, maybe a trip to a museum. Hard to sell? A new exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art (through September 21, 2014), is titled, Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor. No need to mention museums…yet. Just leave a novel or two about these warriors in traditional Japan lying around. Take it from there.
HEART OF A SAMURAI by Margi Preus, Abrams, 2010
Every author has a story in her heart that just begs to be told. Some carry that story for years before it bursts forth on the page. Author Margi Preus stumbled across this story of “a courageous boy who nurtured friendship and understanding between two previously antagonistic countries.” She traveled to the boy’s hometown, hardly a trek next door, and her journey resulted in introducing the young reader, maybe even a reluctant reader boy, to Manjiro.
While his four companions whine and complain and make the harrowing experiences of their 1841shipwreck personal, Manjiro looks for a way to survive. He tries to make the situation better for everyone, but when he reveals during their long, lonely vigil, scanning the horizon for a rescue ship, that his ambition is to be a samurai, they laugh, knowing full well that he was not born to be one. They are finally rescued by an American whaler. Another adventure begins as Manjiro learns a new language, new laws, and sometimes the confusing customs of America, a foreign land inhabited, as his friends believe, by devils that will gobble them up. Manjiro realizes upon his return to Japan that everyone in his country believes that about Americans. Japan had been isolated for 250 years. The Japanese people had no way of knowing anything about America.
Admiral Perry arrives and insists the Japanese open their ports to him. Manjiro is able to translate. Although he does not speak directly with the Americans, he does advise the shogun.
Manjiro is a fine role model for boys of any century. In his longing, he brings the samurai code to life and makes it his. Spoiler alert: He is made a samurai by the shogun. “Unprecedented for a person not born of a samurai family and of such low rank to be elevated to such status.”
In the epilogue, we learn that Manjiro wrote the first English book for Japanese people, A Shortcut to English Conversation, started the whaling industry in Japan and joined the first Japanese Embassy to the United States as an interpreter. Believed to be the first Japanese person to set foot in America, he has been called “the boy who discovered America.”
The book is enriched by a number of illustrations, including pencil drawings by Manjiro who became known as John Mung.
I plan to share a couple more samurai books. Circle a date for that museum trip.