This book was already on my to-read list when it was recognized with a Newbery Honor last month. I had picked it up from the new book display at the library (the same new book display from which I picked up and then put back the eventual Newbery winner, Moon over Manifest. I'm still waiting for that book) on the strength of the gorgeous cover art by Jillian Tamaki; and the jacket copy, which promised "An action-packed historical novel set on the high seas!" Not to mention samurai. Which is a little misleading; the actual book is more complicated than that.
Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus (Amulet, 2010) is a fictionalized account of the life of Nakahama (John) Manjiro, who is believed to be the first Japanese person to set foot in America. A poor fisherman's son, Manjiro was shipwrecked off the coast of Japan in 1841 and rescued by an American whaling ship. The captain of the ship brought Manjiro home with him to New England, where he studied for several years before making his way back to Japan. In keeping with Japan's isolationist policies at the time, Manjiro was immediately taken into custody; but he was later released, reunited with his mother, and given the rank of samurai. His diplomatic work eventually helped open Japan to the world.
Heart of a Samurai encompasses Manjiro's entire journey; the central section of the book is concerned with his time in America. On a farm. Manjiro himself is very likable character: thoughtful, observant, optimistic, and funny; and the book is at its best when it stays close to his thoughts and observations about the differences, practical and philosophical, between Japan and America; and to his realizations about them both.
As I was reading, some incidents and characters struck me as more "fictionalized" than "historical." And as it turns out, these were precisely the ones that Preus, in her Historical Notes, acknowledges having invented "to provide conflict and advance the story as well as to acknowledge the prejudice and ill will that Manjiro faced." I wish Heart of a Samurai had been either more fictionalized or less; as it is, it's an uneasy balance--probably not unlike Manjiro's own.
[See also Pam at Mother Reader's take on Heart of a Samurai during her Newbery Discussion Week.]