Our May book takes us on the most action-packed adventure yet for NPR's Backseat Book Club. In the Newbery Honor-winning Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus, we meet 14-year-old Manjiro, a Japanese boy who works on a fishing boat. Manjiro looks out across the sea and wonders what lies there. "Barbarians live there," he's told. "Demons with hairy faces, big noses and blue eyes."
It's 1841, and Japan is a closed society. Outsiders aren't welcome, and Japanese don't travel. Even within the society, you remain in the station into which you were born.
And yet Manjiro, illiterate but ambitious, dreams of becoming a samurai. His elders laugh and caution him: He was born to be a fisherman, they say; his own son would be a fisherman.
Manjiro is full of questions in a world where questions aren't welcome, but which serve him well when his fishing boat is shipwrecked off the coast of Japan — and he encounters the dreaded Barbarians.
He and the other fishermen are barely surviving on a rock of an island. It's the Barbarians who rescue them. Manjiro remembers: "There did not seem to be any tails, horns or fangs among them. There were some alarmingly hairy faces and plenty of big noses, though!
"Six big noses, in fact: one long and hooked, two long and straight, one squashed and wide, and one turned up at the end, and another as big and red as a radish."
They are, it turns out, Americans on a whale hunt. They bring young Manjiro back to California. He is believed to be the first Japanese in the U.S., and he thrives in his new life.
He eventually returns to Japan to become, by a surprising twist of fate, an influential samurai, instrumental in ending Japan's 250 years of total isolation toward the outside world.
This magnificent novel is based on true events, and the book includes drawings from the real Manjiro. The voice Preus finds for Manjiro is so endearing and the novel so compelling that you, too, will feel you've traveled the seas.
As always, we want to hear from NPR's Backseat Book Club readers. What are your questions for author Margi Preus about how she took this true story and turned it into fiction? What would you do if you were shipwrecked? Who or what would you want with you? Send us your questions!