Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Samurai Shortstop, by Alan Gratz
The title of this book drew me in, before I ever saw or read it. I like baseball, and I found the juxtaposition of the words "samurai" and "shortstop" intriguing. I had no idea what the book would be about, but I wanted to know more.
By the end of the first chapter, I was pretty much hooked. The beginning is shocking (a character named Uncle Koji enacts seppuku), but a strong narrative voice and the detailed historical insight into samurai culture made this a novel impossible for me to put down. I had to keep reading, especially to discover the connection to baseball.
Basically, Samarurai Shortstop tells the story of Uncle Koji's nephew, Toyo. Toyo is coming of age just as Japan is officially renouncing much of samurai culture, and opening itself up to Western values and customs (including baseball). Toyo makes his high school baseball team (not surprisingly, he is the shortstop), and then leads his older teammates into competition against other Japanese teams, and eventually a team of Americans.
For the most part, this book really delivers. Samurai Shortstop is a first novel, and so the dialogue, from time to time, is a tad unrealistic. But this is due mainly to the fact that Alan Gratz has so much knowledge to convey to readers about samurai culture and Japanese society at the turn of the 19th century. The information that Gratz has to share is so interesting I was inclined to forgive him for writerly bumps in the road. Fortunately, Gratz's writing and insights on baseball, competition, and father and son relationships are so strong that I found myself rewarded many times for my patience. I especially appreciated the surprising series of events that conclude this novel.
Middle school teachers could suggest this novel as independent reading to sports minded readers and/or history buffs; they also might include it in units on Japan and cultural diversity or decision-making. Like American Born Chinese and The Trap, Samurai Shortstop has a lot to say about how to create relationships to mainstream American values and culture without sacrificing other voices, values, and models. It also raises some very provocative questions about traditional values and group decision-making that I think would inspire a lot of critical conversation in grades 6-8. Pairing this novel up with a novel by Chris Crutcher (perhaps Stotan) would open the door to weighing the relative value of independence versus being part of a group.
My guess is that Samurai Shortstop will appeal more to the middle school crowd than older adolescents (I also suspect it will appeal more to boys than girls, since female characters are in the background in this novel--though this could be an issue to discuss, too). Younger adolescents with a passion for baseball or reading might also be drawn to this novel, though parents should probably read the first chapter so that they can talk with younger readers about the different cultural norms that propel the violent action in the first chapter and ultimately the main decision-making in the book as a whole.