My exploration began when a young man, aged 7, recommended that I read Shipwrecked! the True Adventures of a Japanese Boy (Rhoda Blumberg, HarperCollins, 2001). The title sprang immediately to his mind when I asked him what he’d read lately that was good.
Finding a copy, I opened it and began reading, realizing that this was a well-written account of a real-life boy in 1841 who survived a calamity. I put it aside, knowing I’d want to read it when I could savor every detail.
Then Margi Preus, a CLN member, wrote Heart of a Samurai (Amulet, August 2010). It’s a fictionalized version of the same story about Manjiro, a Japanese boy who is the sole support for his family, fishing with a crew for sustenance and having their ship destroyed in a whopper of a storm, swimming frantically to a barren island that can’t sustain them for long. At 14, Manjiro is resourceful, but it isn’t until the crew is picked up by an American whaling ship that we understand just how curious and bright he is. At a time in Japanese history when their isolationism was severe and people who tried to travel into or leave the country were killed, it is possible that Manjiro was the first Japanese person to live in America … and he certainly brought knowledge of America back to Japan.
The novel-length version of the story will find favor with a variety of readers. Those who like fiction will appreciate Preus’ painting of Manjiro as a tender-hearted, careful boy who can stand up for himself in a fight yet is filled with wonder over the many new experiences he encounters. Those who want to read only real-life stories will find the narrative solidly based in well-researched fact with drawings by Manjiro from more than 150 years ago. Those who like swashbuckling adventure will enjoy the rough-and-tumble world in which Manjiro finds himself, especially the vivid descriptions of whaling and sailing on a ship for three years. For the reader who likes descriptive details, a touch of romance, and fluid dialogue, Preus achieves a good balance.
Teachers will appreciate the book for its parallels to today’s immigrant experience. Manjiro, renamed John Mung by his crewmates, is not universally accepted into the New Bedford community to which he sails with Captain Whitfield, his surrogate father. Here, Preus’ paintbrush finds the right tone, with solid friends supporting Manjiro in his pursuit of a life he never could have had in Japan. In that way, it’s also a book for those who take heart from the lifted-by-his-bootstraps story … we all want to believe we can create a better life for ourselves.
Manjiro (Emily Arnold McCully, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008) is the story told in a non-fiction picture book form. How interesting to compare Ms. McCully’s realistic watercolor paintings to the artwork within both Heart of a Samurai and Shipwrecked! much of which is taken from archives and historical documents. Comparing Western art to Japanese art would create a fascinating look at both cultures, leading to several good discussions about form, symbolism, method, and the regard for art.
Shipwrecked! does an admirable job of placing Manjiro in his time and helping us understand two cultures that are very different than our own: the whaling culture of Massachusetts and the strict isolationist culture of Japan. It would be interesting to note how a nonfiction writer can interrupt the flow of a narrative to present far more detailed information than a fiction author can. Blumberg includes a descriptive chapter about Manjiro’s time spent working in the gold fields in California, as well as Manjiro’s role in opening Japan to the world when Commodore Matthew Perry demanded that America be allowed to trade in the islands.
These three books provide an ideal means for teaching the difference between fiction and nonfiction. In the midst of TV’s reality shows, video games, and news media that blurs the lines between fiction and fact, many schools incorporate teaching this skill set into their curriculum. Heart of a Samurai could be read out loud to the class and students could examine the other resources, including Shipwrecked! and Manjiro, as well as a number of online resources. For those near Fairhaven, Massachusetts, a three-story home has been preserved as a memorial to Manjiro and Captain Whitfield.
So, to my 7‑year-old friend, thanks for the tip about Shipwrecked! I appreciate the reading path it opened for me.
An excerpt from Heart of a Samurai
Margi Preus is a lyrical writer, possibly from her deep experience as an actress and stand-up comedian. This passage from her new book is one of my favorites (p. 272):
“Long after all the others had gone to bed, Manjiro stood at the door of the hut. The moon made a path of light leading to the ocean and beyond — perhaps all the way to America. It looked as if he could walk there, on that path of light.
“It was so still that he could hear the rush of waves on the beach; the solemn hoot of an owl rolled down the mountainside. Beyond that was a deep and ancient silence, as old as these hills.
“It was hard to imagine anything changing this remote village, but the wind of change was blowing, and Japan would be swept along by it one way or another. She, his beloved country, had spent hundreds of years living from full moon to full moon while the West had sped ahead in science, invention, transportation, navigation, and most ominously, military strength. There were hundreds of ways Japan would benefit from the coming changes. And hundreds of ways she would not.”