Historical fiction was always a favorite genre of mine growing up. I loved reading about bygone days and the people who lived them. This has grown over the years into a love of historical film as well. After reading Margi Preus’ Heart of a Samurai, I can’t believe someone hasn’t made a film about this story yet. It seems right up Ed Zwick’s alley. A young Japanese man named Manjiro is stranded with his fellow fisherman after a storm is rescued by an American whaling ship, and after several years at sea, Manjiro returns with the ship to New Bedford, Massachusetts and becomes quite possibly the first Japanese person to set foot in America. Now granted, there are some things I can see holding back a film adaptation; finding an actor to portray Manjiro from the age of fourteen into his twenties would be tricky, and sea-faring films aren’t exactly ripping up the screen these days. But the story is too good to pass up, and I can hope that the success of Preus’ book might help bring this exciting story to theatres.
For starters, Manjiro’s tale is packed with everything a good story needs, and Preus has really done a beautiful job at rendering it on the page. There’s action in life aboard the whaling ship, drama in the prejudices Manjiro faces, both in American and when he returns to Japan, comedic elements in a classic fish out of water story and a prevailing sense of hope, wonder and adventure. There’s even a little bit of a first love story going on, capping with a May Day festivity that the Author’s note reveals is a true event from Manjiro’s life. The detail of everything is fantastic. Clearly Preus has done her homework, and the research shows. The book is illustrated by Manjiro’s own pencil drawings, of everything from whales to the floor plans of Captain Whitfield’s farm house where he makes his home for much of his time in America. Even the details and characters that were fabricated for dramatic effect fit seamlessly into the framework of history. Characters like Jolly and Tom, created as foils to showcase the discrimination Manjiro finds on the whaling ship and at school, are not one-dimensional villains, but have their layers and complexities.
I maintain my assertion that Manjiro’s life, or Heart of a Samurai specifically, would make an excellent film. His life after the events of the book are just as interesting, though I understand why the author chose to end the novel where she did, at a turning point, a point where all things might be possible. One of the greatest things I can say about a book of historical fiction is that it made me want to learn more, read more. Almost immediately after finishing Heart of a Samurai, I pulled out my e-reader and started searching for some of the titles listed in Preus’ bibliography. But mostly, I’m excited to read more from first timer Preus. With a Newbery Honor on her first time out, she clearly has a bright future ahead of her.
Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus
2010, Amulet Books