Samurai Shortstop by Alan Gratz 2006
IQ "He suddenly understood what had drawn him to baseball in the first place-why he and the others loved the game so much. At its heart, baseball was Japanese. How else to explain the samurai nature of this gaijin [foreigner/American] game? It was at the same time both modern and ancient, mental and physical." Toyo pg. 134
Samurai Shortstop takes place in Tokyo in 1890. Toyo is starting his first day at a boarding school (and high school) and he immediately faces hazing. The upperclassmen have a reign of terror, the first-years are called "girls" (obviously not an insult, but this is 1890 so I'll go with it) and so they are not allowed to go to the men's bathroom or officially become part of clubs or sport teams, because they are not yet "men". This is upsetting to Toyo, he wants to join the baseball team as shortstop (the player who is in between 2nd and 3rd base) and he thinks he has a fair shot since the current shortstop stinks. But the seniors haven't "made him a man" yet so he can't join the team, or even enter the infield. However, Toyo has more important things to worry about; his uncle Koji committed honorable suicide (seppuku), while everyone sees this as heroic, Toyo has a hard time seeing the honor and courage in it. Worst of all, Toyo fears his father will commit seppuku next. Seppuku is connected to bushido, which is the way of the samurai. Even though samurais have been outlawed, Toyo's father begins teaching him about bushido. Toyo's father hates everything Western, he can see no good from opening Japan up to American and European influences. Toyo loves trains and baseball, he wants his father to understand that not all things from the Western world are bad.
Samurai Shortstop may have one of the most intense first lines EVER "Toyo watched carefully as his uncle prepared to kill himself" (pg. 1), I was sucked right in. Seppuku is similar (in a way) to the kamikaze (the Japanese suicide pilots), death is better than dishonor (or surrender). I really sympathized with Toyo, not only did he have to deal with his uncle committing suicide, but he had to watch his father cut off his uncle's head and then he had to help by setting and cleaning up. Toyo is a likable main character and frustratingly human. The hazing at his school (Ichiko which is a real boarding school in Japan) is horrific and the reader can't blame him when he makes decisions to go with the crowd to save himself, while not faulting him, we can still be frustrated. However, he redeems himself. The other characters are not just stock characters, there for drama or comic relief. Some are funnier than others, but each one of Toyo's friends (and enemies) represents a small part of the Japanese experience in the late 1800s. The only thing that really bothered me about this novel were all the mentions of peeing. I mean really? I know it's a book about guys, but does it need to be mentioned in every other chapter (they "make rain"). The sexism in the novel bothered me, but it can be overlooked since the author was being authentic to the time period. Life at Ichiko is a little bit like Lord of the Flies because the boys govern themselves; they dispense punishments, cook, etc. The idea is that Ichiko is training future leaders of Japan so they boys should become men by self-governing themselves and others. Also, it's boarding school and the boys are supposed to be learning, but they might as well just be in school to be hazed and to play sports, because classes are never really discussed. I wanted to know more about the boys being in charge of their peers and the sort of classes a Japanese boarding school for boys would offer.
The story takes place during Emperor Meiji's reign in Japan. I've always been fascinated by Meiji's Japan, he brought Japan speedily up to date. My history book makes him sound like a sort of hero, it sings his praises. He did a lot of great things for Japan through modernization, and I do wish the book had focused more on his reign, especially the negative. The samurai were the elite group, Meiji had them banned because he saw them as old-fashioned. Most samurais accept this and become involved in government and business, but some (like Toyo's father and uncle) resist the ban. The author does an excellent job of remaining neutral throughout Samurai Shortstop. He presents the positive side of samurais, they were honorable, brave and loyal. He also presents their negative side, they were often cruel towards peasants and they held an elitist view. The reader must make up his or her own mind about the ways of the samurai and whether or not they think they are right. Even if you end up disagreeing with the samurai, you will come away from this book with new found respect for the samurai.
Samurai Shortstop tells the story of a time in Japanese history that is not often discussed in American textbooks. The author immerses us in 1890 Japan, through the food, language, clothes, samurai, athletics (judo and sumo wrestling) and yes, baseball. For those of you whose eyes glaze over at the mention of sports, don't hesitate to pick this book up. It's light enough on baseball information to keep those who are not baseball (or sports) fan interested, but there's enough baseball talk to keep sports fans happy. I loved reading how the author connected the way of the samurai (bushido) with baseball, Toyo begins to see connections and he uses his samurai training skills to become a better batter and shortstop. The terms for baseball plays in Japan are similar to English terms; homu ran is home run, pu-re boru (play ball) and besuboru is baseball. Toyo learns about bushido and honor and he also learns about compromises and standing up for what's right. This is historical fiction at its finest in my opinion, the author cleverly inserts details about Japanese culture into the story that is ultimately a coming-of-age and one that represents taking the good from both cultures with some fun and sports filled moments.
Disclosure: From the library :) Thank you so much Heather for recommending this book (and to everyone else who recommended it to me) it was a great read.