My jitters were for nothing. What this is kind of defies pigeonholing it is, simply enough, an excellent book. Incredibly well-researched, engrossing, poignant, and honest. Just a great book.
Set in 1890s Japan, this is a story of both culture clash and generation gaps. Toyo Shimada is starting out at one of the most elite boarding schools in Japan; a school that turns out the future leaders of the country. While that should be foremost in his mind, he is instead dwelling (rightfully so) on the recent ritual suicide (seppuku) of his Uncle Koji. Not only did he have to witness it, but he had to assist with certain parts. If that wasnt enough, he knows that he is being groomed to carry out his fathers seppuku.
Toyo really isnt sure he understands his father. Sotaro was a samurai, the same as his brother Koji. But in 1890s Japan, the new Emperor has declared that there are no more samurai, that everyone is now equal all commoners. The time of the samurai and bushido, the way of the warrior, are over. But Sotaro still clings to the old ways. He is not ready for the new Japan.
He also doesnt understand his son, or Toyos love of baseball or besuboru. To him, it is a Western game full of deceit and no honor. Toyo sees it differently, and does everything he can to get on Ichikos team.
Even though he is an excellent player, getting on the team isnt easy. Ichiko is a school full of traditions, including many that we would call hazing in todays world. When reading Samurai Shortstop, readers must keep in mind both the time and the place the actions of Toyo and his fellow classmates horrify us now, but were accepted as normal then.
As Sotaro teaches Toyo how to become a samurai, Toyo begins to see parallels in his own life, especially with the game of besuboru. He manages to become the link between the old world his father still misses and that of the new Japan that is unfolding around themeven gaining the respect of some gaijin (foreigners) American baseball players when the Ichiko Nine roundly defeat the interlopers.
The authors research for this novel really shows through in the details of every day life in Japan at the turn of the century. He has also managed to perfectly capture the heart and mind of a young boy living during that time delicately balancing our reactions now to the actions of then. I really enjoyed this one much more than I thought I would (Im not much of a baseball fan; Id only attend a game if the hot dogs were good).
Its a solid novel about, yes, baseball, but also much higher themes of loyalty, honor, tradition, progression, compassion, understanding&I recommend this one for readers aged 12 and up. Studying Japan in school? This would be an excellent resource to include. Told in Toyos voice, the scenes are much more immediate than any dry old textbook.