Baseball bats and samurai swords. At first glance, you wouldn't think that these two have much in common. But if you're Alan Gratz, you will discover the story of how a Japanese teenager brings together his father's samurai traditions with his own passion for the gaijin sport, baseball. Readers of Samurai Shortstop (Dial 2006) will discover a coming of age book both for Toyo (the main character) as well as for the "new" Japan.
Although set in the end of the 19th century, this is the story of every young person who wrestles with having one foot imbedded in the traditions of family and culture, the other foot ready to sprint into the future. Which rules and family traditions will Toyo embrace and bring with him into his adult life? Which rules will he throw off? This is the not only Toyo's decision, but one that faces all young people, in every culture and every time period.
The two symbols, the bat and the sword, play significant roles as Toyo angrily wrestles with Sotaro's insistence that he learn bushido (the samurai code). In a poignant passage, his fellow players come and ask him for bushido lessons so that they can become better baseball players. As Toyo struggles with his decision, he realizes that, "…maybe they could take the warrior code and leave the worst elements of the samurai behind. He knew Sotaro would never approve. But wasn't that what Japan was herself doing—taking the best of what the rest of the world had to offer and making it her own?" p. 206.
"…the warrior's way is the twofold path of the brush and the sword," Sotaro tells Toyo on his sixteenth birthday. By opening the book with the following haiku, Gratz sets the stage for this well-written historical and sports novel.
The secret to catching a ball
Lies with the willow
Swaying in the wind
--Haiku by Japanese baseball player and poet Shiki Masaoka (1890)
I would recommend this book for middle and high school students. The quality of research and attention to detail which Gratz includes makes this an excellent supplementary book for Asian studies particularly in the period prior to World War I. Teachers could also use this book to discuss the issues their students face in assimilating or rejecting their own cultural heritage.
historical fiction, sports fiction, Samurai Shortstop, Alan Gratz, book for boys and girl, Asian studies, Japan