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The Samurai's Tale Paperback – September 12, 2005
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
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The book is unquestionably a juvenile novel and lacks graphic violent or sexual content. The storyline is essentially episodic and lacks complexity, such as subplots, beyond the historical background material. The writing is mostly centered on action and dialogue without much attention to description, and the prose is slightly simplistic. However, despite all that, it turned out to be a fairly engaging book. The author lived in the area where the events are set, and an attempt was clearly made to keep the story grounded in time and place. Written in the first person in the form of a memoir, it might have been easy to lapse into anachronism, but instead the author has done a good job of creating a believable character who has reactions and outlook appropriate to (a) a relatively sensitive and reflective boy, living in (b) feudal Japan. To me, the book feels like the kernel of a great epic story. The boy's inner life, judgement, and narrative voice are balanced and appealing enough that a great number of scenes, plot elements, and descriptive passages could have been kneaded in.
The negative reviews of this book on Amazon are mostly from young students who found the end particularly boring. This is interesting because the latter part of the book is where historical events come to the fore, and the author spends more time on the character's attempts to navigate the labyrinth of manners and duties expected of him due to his social position. For me, this was where the book became most interesting, and it was the beginning chapters, recounting friendships and adventures, that left me cold.
No one would mistake this book for great literature, and it's also not vapid entertainment. So, what is the point? I'm not sure. As the boy attempts to become worthy of being appointed as a samurai, he idealizes and adopts the mores of his culture, in turn developing into an honest and self-reliant, yet not naive or shallow, adult. Despite this moralistic bent, I am interested enough in the characters and plot to coninue with the sequel, The Boy and the Samurai. Also, one can never have enough versions of Chushingura, so the author's will get added to my collection.
Of note, before the 2005 Sandpiper edition of this book, there was a 1984 paperback edition by Houghton Mifflin that I can't find now son Amazon. As some childrens' books are revised (i.e., censored) these days for ideological reasons, I would try to get the 1984 version if possible. I can't imagine what would be objectionable in the original, but I can't imagine changing objectionable books to begin with, so who knows.