In 1841, a Japanese fishing vessel sinks. Its crew is forced to swim to a small, unknown island, where they are rescued by a passing American ship. Japan’s borders remain closed to all Western nations, so the crew sets off to America, learning English on the way. Manjiro, a fourteen-year-old boy, is curious and eager to learn everything he can about this new culture. Eventually the captain adopts Manjiro and takes him to his home in New England. The boy lives for some time in New England, and then heads to San Francisco to pan for gold. After many years, he makes it back to Japan, only to be imprisoned as an outsider. With his hard-won knowledge of the West, Manjiro is in a unique position to persuade the shogun to ease open the boundaries around Japan; he may even achieve his unlikely dream of becoming a samurai.
This novel is a Newberry honor, so I expected great things from it before I started. If you like historical fiction, you will like this one although it is somewhat different from most other historical fiction novels I have read.
The absolute most appealing part of the book for me was the illustrations, many of them done by the main character in real life...and the tidbits of samurai code that are included throughout. They truly take the book to a new level.
Another bonus were the treasures at the end of the book - the epilogue, historical notes, Japanese glossary, and further suggested reading. As a teacher, I find these gems to be the most useful and it is always neat to see how the plotline differed from the real events of history, and it is nice to be able to point my students toward more reading if they are interested.
I enjoyed Manjiro's story, and I learned a lot about Japanese culture of the mid 1800s, which I knew little about. I think this novel really sets an interesting stage for what happens later between the United States and Japan. Manjiro played an important role in forming a relationship between the two countries, and his experiences as a result are like no other.
"The gist of the poem, he thought, was that we should do the best we can with whatever fate the gods give us in our lives, and perhaps we can inspire others who come after us."
"Americans might not be so terribly different from us, he thought. 'Yes, I will take the advice of my pillow,' Manjiro said. 'I will sleep on it.'"
"I may have fallen seven times, but I got up eight."
"Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time."
"In the words of the ancients," his mother had told him, "one should make one's decisions within the space of seven breaths."
"The most beautiful things of this earth are the most fleeting."
"Birth and family are of little consequence (in America); individuals earn positions according to their abilities. Respect for personal rights is a basic principle of that society."