Heart of a Samurai starts strong. Seriously, by the second page, the fishermen are adrift in the Pacific Ocean with little hope of survival. By page twenty, rescue from their rocky island is imminent and comes in the form of an American whaling ship. From there, they are on a sea journey as viewed through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old Japanese boy. His isolation and views of the foreigners as “barbarians” add to the feeling of discovery for him and for the reader. It’s all going swimmingly, one might say, until the story takes some time off in America.
At this point the novel slows down to a crawl. What was a sea adventure becomes a tale of acclimation. We’ve gone from The Perfect Storm to Little House on the Prairie. There’s some good stuff in this section that shows the difference between the acceptance that John Mung found on the ship with the prejudice of the farming community. As the real Mung’s history, it’s important to understand his intelligence, his loyalty, and his isolation. But as a novel, this section dashes the growing momentum of the story. By the time he gets back on a whaling boat, we have a better sense of both his reasoning and his sacrifice in making the decision, but we’ve lost the excitement.
Unfortunately, this turn on the whaling ship is short and goes into a series of various real-life activities that eventually get Mung back to Japan and set him on his adult course as an ambassador between countries and an actual samurai. Interesting stuff from a historical perspective, but a complete switch in style. Also, by this point in the book Mung is an adult, not a child or teen, so the story loses much of its appeal as children’s literature. There are great nonfiction resources — historical notes, a glossary, a bibliography, and actual drawings of John Mung throughout the book — but again, weren’t we signing on for a sea adventure?
Overall, I liked the book but think it would have benefited as a novel from less exacting reliance on the historical events. Get that kid back on the boat much faster and end with his last whaling journey. Perhaps he could be staring out over the ocean towards him homeland knowing in his heart that he’ll make it home someday, leaving the rest of the story for the epilogue.
So what do you think about it?
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