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Samurai Rising by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Gareth Hinds
February 2016, Charlesbridge
Reviewed from a final copy
Here’s my first nonfiction title of the year, coming to us from back in February! We’ve got four stars, some love in the comments of our original list post — and who doesn’t love history? (I mean, maybe not the peasants burninating in the countryside at the time, probably. They might have argued that history sucked.) Turner’s title is an intriguing example of narrative nonfiction. With so few sources, with so little to really go on historically speaking, Turner manages to fill in with a lot of details, related research, and intelligent guesswork. She paints a vivid picture adding in details to set the scene — blacking teeth, Samurai training, armor, and other aspects of life in feudal Japan.
It’s an interesting sleight of hand; the text never feels short on details or lacking information (the 60+ pages of backmatter make clear just how much reading and inclusion Turner did for the book). She also works to be transparent about the guesswork and supposition she’s had to do to tell the story; attentive readers will be able to think and talk about all the “probablies” and “most likelies” included in the text. These authorial choices combine so that the story is full of action, well-paced, solidly researched, and illuminates (as much as possible) the complicated people who made brutal life-or-death decisions with huge impacts. Turner judiciously includes wry asides throughout the text to great comedic effect. If you are here for a funny, self-aware, action-packed story, you will not be disappointed. (“No pressure, Yoshitsune” or the many jokes about kidnapping the retired emperor, etc.)
Minamoto Yoshitsune did lead an epic life, as the title suggests; his choices were not small, and his name is known even now, nearly 1000 years later. What we can discern of him is complicated, flawed, and fascinating; he’s often presented as an antihero. However, with the authorial decision to write narrative nonfiction, he’s surrounded by an action movie of a text — battle after battle after battle, all with our main character facing overwhelming odds, likely death, and plenty of smart-ass quips to spare (“Why, it sounds like a regular race track!” I am still laughing at that. Still).
There is a lot of brutality here — some carefully and thoughtfully presented, but some shared casually. In a book about war and the rise of the samurai, this is not completely shocking. Heavy Medal recently hosted a lot of conversation about the violence, about the way that the text uses our own fascination with violence in order to learn more about a time period — or maybe celebrate an evil dude: to-may-to, to-mah-to. (This is a very flip summary of a really engaging and respectful conversation. You should check it out. And wait with me for the conversation to continue when they return to focus on Samurai Rising, rather than a roundup post! I am still thinking over some of the points over there as I consider this text.)
But what does all this mean for the Printz? Well, in terms of the criteria, SR hits many of them — especially story, voice, style, setting. What we have is a super engaging read that I think is a bit of a mess thematically. We can’t understand the age of the samurai without understanding Yoshitsune, Turner tells us in the introduction. She also reminds us in the backmatter that we’re not really understanding Yoshitsune: “What remains after eight hundred years is only the ghost of Yoshitsune. His reality was surely more intriguing, nuanced, and heartbreaking than anything we can imagine or re-create.” Turner’s many and thoughtful efforts at nuance get too easily lost; they’re too slippery in a story this bold and shiny. In some ways, this feels like two books in one — the action-y (and gripping!) take on history and the carefully constructed backmatter that is really the journey Turner went on to make this book. I can’t think of a good way to have seamlessly done both, but I find myself dissatisfied with the final product here.
I haven’t talked at all about Hinds’s artwork. It’s beautiful work: black and white brush illustrations that open each chapter. The maps he includes provide a lot of clarity and context to the battle descriptions. Overall, I found the art gorgeous, but aside from the maps, not crucial to the text and understanding the story. It was a nice addition that created atmospheric moments, but didn’t feel essential or expansive.
I get the stars this title has garnered, but I’m not ready to call this a contender. I suspect that many of you feel differently. Let’s talk in the comments!
Filed under: Books to look for, Nonfiction
About Sarah Couri
Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.
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