Samurai Rising: A Non-Fiction Review

“Few warriors are as famous as the Japanese samurai. We remember those beautiful swords and those fearsome helmets. We recall, with both horror and fascination, how some chose to end their own lives. But no one can understand the samurai without knowing Minamoto Yoshitsune.”

Samurai Rising by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Gareth HindsSamurai warriors occupy an unusual space between actual history and the stuff of legend. Immortalized in countless books and films, these warriors are sensationalized and idealized but rarely studied as historical figures.

Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune (2016) by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Gareth Hinds works to correct that with this biography of one of history’s most famous samurai.

Yoshitsune’s story begins in 1160 when his father tries to kidnap the Japanese Emperor and take more prestige and wealth for the Minamoto samurai by force. He fails thus forfeiting his life and placing his rival, the leader of the Taira samurai, in an influential position as the emperor’s right hand. Yoshitsune avoids execution thanks to his mother’s pleas and is instead exiled as a child at a monastery to become a monk.

As he grows older and learns more about his family’s heritage Yoshitsune rejects that path, runs away from the monastery, learns the ways of the samurai, and sets out help his family reclaim their supposed birthright.

This story begins in 1160 when the Minamoto abduction of the emperor fails. Turner bridges the more than 850 years between Yoshitsune and readers with thorough research and a healthy dose of supposition.

Samurai Rising opens with a listing of key figures in the story along with name pronunciations and a short description of their relationship to Yoshitsune. Detailed maps show readers Japan as a whole as well as key battle site and strongholds that will turn up in the story. The text is further enhanced with illustrations from Gareth Hinds that appear at the beginning of each chapter showcasing samurai in action or detailed images of their various equipment. Turner finishes this book with copious footnotes about her research and the details she has chosen to include and interpret in this story.

This book can appeal to a wide range of ages. It’s been discussed as a contender for both children’s and young adult awards and was named a finalist for the Young Adult Library Services Association’s (YALSA’s) Non-Fiction Awards.

Samurai Rising reads very young. The narrative voice feels decidedly middle grade as does the snappy tone and the witty asides peppered throughout the text. Turner’s writing is filled with pat language and anachronistic analogies to better situated samurai life and culture in modern terms. (Example: Saying the “cool kids” of the Japanese ruling class saw the samurai as “dumb jocks” or comparing Yoshitsune showing up at the Hiraizumi estate asking for samurai training to a boy who has never been to Little League showing up for spring training with the Yankees.) This information will work for some readers. I was not one of them.

Aside from pulling me out of the story–because really, even as a historical biography this book is essentially a story–these comparisons often highlighted very specific assumptions Turner makes about who will be reading this book (sports enthusiasts, people with the cultural knowledge to know the Yankees, readers familiar with the stereotypical social hierarchy of high school . . .). Seeing these assumptions at play is intensely irritating as it creates the effect of talking down to readers and, for me, placing me as firmly not within the target audience (which is okay, that happens when adults read YA but it could easily happen for kids and teens outside of the target area as well).

Writing issues aside, Samurai Rising is also a book that glorifies violence and war and doesn’t look to closely at the implications of writing a history about the “winning” side of this samurai battle. Why are the Minamoto the heroes? Why is violence and death acceptable within the ceremony of samurai culture? Turner never really says. I don’t have the background in Japanese history to say much of anything but I will point you to Leonard Kim’s review which raises a lot of these questions and points out some of the inherent flaws in this viewpoint.

The scope of Samurai Rising and the subject matter is especially impressive given the relative dearth of textual evidence from the time. Turner takes on a lot here and she successfully breathes life into Yoshitsune’s story making it engaging and approachable for readers. Whether or not that is a good thing is a matter open to interpretation and discussion.

If you want to hear more thoughts about Samurai Rising be sure to check out Sarah Couri’s review on Someday My Printz Will Come and the discussion in the comments on Heavy Medal as well. Leonard Kim’s review should also be required reading about this book.

Possible Pairings: The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb, The Samurai’s Tale by Erik Christian Haugaard, The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin, Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki

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