Having reread SAMURAI RISING, I can say that it has unequivocally secured a place on my ballot, and depending on the will and disposition of my hypothetical committee, I could even spend my first place vote on it!
First of all, I want to say that whatever you think of this book (and we were strongly divided on it when it was introduced in our Biography Roundup), a large part of that is how it measures up to our expectations of what constitutes excellence within this particular genre and what constitutes excellence for a particular child audience. While we can say that of every single book that we discuss, I think it’s particularly true here.
IS THIS BOOK A BIOGRAPHY OR A HISTORY?
While I know the subtitle–The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune–suggests that this is a biography, and that indeed the chronology of the narrative follows his life, I suggested in my Horn Book review that another paradigm to judge this book against is military history, and I did that for two reasons. First, the historical record is such that Turner cannot really present an intimate look at Yoshitsune, as we often see in the very best modern biographies. We know what he did, but we know little about what he thought and said and felt, and what we do know about both of these things may not meet our modern standards of historiography. And second, the focus of the book is as much on politics and intrigue, on battle and strategy as it is on the rise and fall of the most notorious samurai. As I mentioned previously, we have lots of reference points in children’s literature for biography, not so much for military history. Thus, we return to Stevenson’s question: Is SAMURAI RISING mind-blowingly brilliant–or merely excellent?
WHITHER PRIMARY SOURCES?
One of the things that makes this such a daring and ambitious book are the sources (or lack thereof) that Turner had available to her. THE TALE OF THE HEIKE is one of the masterpieces of Japanese prose literature. It grew and evolved over time, but the earliest versions appeared shortly after the events of this book. The AZUMA KAGAMI is a semi-official record written about 100 years after these events, from court diaries, family records, temple documents, and early versions of the HEIKE. The former source is closer to a primary source, but the nature of retelling the story repeatedly has diluted and obscured its ability to serve as such for modern historians. The AZUMA KAGMI, on the other hand, is a secondary source, being constructed from primary (and secondary) sources that are no longer extant. There may be more veracity within its pages, but it’s still hard to parse it out. Turner has thoroughly documented her approach to these sources, and of course there are dozens of additional sources listed in the bibliography.
Our present expectation of good nonfiction, however, whether history or biography, is that it not only relies heavily on primary sources, but that it excerpts them quite liberally. Steve Sheinkin, among others, is frequently able to do this to a degree where the storytelling rivals that of the best fiction. Turner’s storytelling succeeds to a similar degree–at least in terms of plot and setting, if not character–despite the handicap of relying on secondary sources.
Can you imagine reading a novel without any dialogue? I have read books with pages of description, a few lines of dialogue, more pages of description, a few more lines of dialogue, and it is quite tedious, to say the least. Turner adds dialogue sparingly and judiciously, as she explains in her author’s note, and it’s to her credit then that she crafts such a suspenseful and engaging narrative with a paucity of primary source quotes standing in for dialogue.
To this end, Turner employs a lively, engaging voice which briskly recalls this gist of the story, folding in period details, speculating where appropriate, and making the occasional glib aside. To my mind the quick pacing coupled with the snarky tone are necessary ingredients to engage the attention of young readers in spite of the relatively dense text. I couldn’t think of a better voice suited for this story, and yet I know that some questioned whether its tone glorified and celebrated the inherent violence in the book. Perhaps we can discuss this further in the comments, but I think the presence of violence alone is not enough to deem it inappropriate for children.
HOW MUCH VIOLENCE IS TOO MUCH?
This is a violent story, and there is no way to hide that from the reader in a treatment of this length without being dishonest about not only the medieval world, but Japanese culture. The violence in this book comes in fits and spurts, and is not an unrelenting, unremitting series of horrors upon horrors. I also note Turner’s efforts throughout to contextualize the violence, describing the lack of medical care that would have soothed the multitudes of wounded in one passage, while calling out the hesitancy to kill a rival teenage boy in the heat of battle in another.
This history is part of the 7th grade World History curriculum in California, and I cannot help but think it is perfectly pitched to a junior high audience of 7th, 8th, and 9th graders (which is not to deny that younger readers may also gravitate toward it). Is this really inappropriate for readers of this age?
Our response to violence is, in part, a taste issue. I say this because this principle was illustrated to me early in my teaching career. Our core novels for 5th grade included BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and MY BROTHER SAM IS DEAD. My colleague found the death in the former to be heart-wrenching and the violence in the latter to be difficult. I found both elements blasé. They didn’t register with me the way they did with her, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The wrong part is insisting that we must all read a book the same way. I understand that some people will point to the violence, the lack of commentary on said violence, and the snarky tone as evidence that it is not suitable for a child audience. I understand that point of view, but cannot agree with it.
What pushes this from merely being a distinguished book to the most distinguished (or at least being a serious contender for such)? I would hope that plot and setting are indisputably in this category, and while there is sure to be wild disagreement on these points, I think presentation of information and style are, too. Disagree with me? See you in the comments.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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