Manjiro is a young Japanese teen stranded on a deserted island with four fellow fisherman. Eventually they are picked up by an American whaling ship that will not take them back to Japan due to Japan's closed door policy; foreigners and even locals that have traveled too far from Japan will be fired upon when entering the Japan's harbor's and put to death should they reach land. Manjiro proves himself to be a fast learner and endears himself to the ships Captain with his curiosity and intelligence. The Captain takes Manjiro home with him where they become a family and Manjiro goes to school, tries his hand at an apprenticeship, ships out on a whaling ship as part of the crew, becomes a gold miner and even eventually returns home and manages to avoid being put to death and becomes a diplomat.
I just want to start by saying that I somehow I had gotten it into my head that this book was going to be about a girl breaking gender barriers, so as you can imagine I was a little surprised when I started listening and it was about a boy.
There was so much to learn about whaling and life on a ship, mid 19th century life in Eastern United States, life for gold minders in California and Japanese life at that time period. The details are incredible. Clearly the author did a lot of research and I found the historical notes at the end of the book really helpful, particularly since Manjiro was a real person. I had never heard of him before but clearly he led a much more interesting life then the average person.
The language sounded beautiful and almost lyrical sometimes. Unfortunately the narrator had a very nonfiction quality to the way he read the book that could sometimes be distracting. However it wasn't all bad, he also did a great job with the japanese and how Manjiro would speak. Several days later I'm still torn between whether this serious matter of fact tone makes sense since it was based on a true story or whether it was in fact too distracting for me.
About half way though the book I started thinking about this book and that it didn't feel like a children's book. It didn't even really feel like a middle grade or teen book. Both the tone of the book and the time span it covers make it feel more like adult literary fiction. It's an adventurous story but the adventure feels toned down by the language and the amount of introspection.