Baseball, Bushido-style

h1 August 13th, 2006 by eisha

Samurai ShortstopI’m nervous about writing about Samurai Shortstop by Alan Gratz for the same reason I was nervous about reading it – I know the author. Many years ago, Alan and I did time together in the same theatre company, and even though I haven’t seen him in far too long, I still consider him a friend and would have felt really, truly awful if I’d read his very first published novel and didn’t like it. But rest assured, Dear Reader; I would never let a little thing like friendship compromise the integrity of my book recommendations. Believe me when I tell you that my fears were unfounded: the book totally ROCKS.

It opens with a scene that pretty much grabs you by the jugular: It’s 1890, Tokyo, and 15-year-old Toyo and his father Sotaro are assisting in the seppuku (ritual suicide) of Toyo’s beloved Uncle Koji. Koji is a former samurai who has decided he cannot live in the newly-created Meiji-era Japan, in which samurai and other relics of Japan’s feudal system have been abolished. After Sotaro has beheaded his brother’s body, he checks to make sure Toyo was paying close attention, because “Soon you will do the same for me.”

The next day is Toyo’s first day at an elite boarding school for boys, Ichiko. Here Toyo and his sidekicky best friend Futoshi endure a lot of the brutality and bullying that tends to show up in books about boys’ schools – it’s pretty harsh, but thankfully the “ceremony of the closed fist” wasn’t what I was afraid it was going to be. Sotaro, in order to supplement the “modern” education he’s getting at school and better prepare Toyo for his father’s suicide, decides to train him in “bushido” – the samurai code of honor and conduct. The lessons go over Toyo’s head at first, but eventually he finds ways to apply what he learns in all aspects of his life – his sadness and bewilderment at his uncle’s death, his distance from his father and fear of Sotaro’s decision to die, conflicts with students and faculty… and BASEBALL.

Toyo, like many Japanese boys of the period, is passionate about the recently-imported American sport. When he finally makes the Ichiko team, he finds that his bushido training greatly improves his game – and that of his teammates, when he passes it on. The story builds to a climactic game between the Ichiko nine and a team of Americans from a local athletic club.

The baseball thing is the other reason I was a little afraid to read this book. I don’t usually read a lot of sports-themed YA books (or children’s, or adult) because – okay, I can admit it – I don’t really care for organized sports. I have been known to watch an occasional soccer game if a very cute boy is on the team, and I can kinda watch hockey because it goes so fast and stops so often you don’t have to even pay attention. So I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through a book in which baseball played such a major role. But even though I did struggle through long, detailed descriptions of singles and doubles and balls that rocket into left field and whatever, I still enjoyed the book.

Two things set this novel apart from other sporty YA lit. First is the impeccable research that went into it – every scene is steeped in details that firmly ground it in the period, and the Author’s Notes at the end explain in detail the historical elements of the story, and there’s a bibliography to boot. Second is the excellent writing. Alan never wastes a word, and the narrative can turn on a dime from deeply poignant to hilarious. Toyo has a heavy role to play, but his voice never seems older than his age, and the dialogue and imagery of the sadder scenes are imbued with a simple grace that fits nicely with the theme. But for a historical novel that deals with suicide, hazing, and societal upheaval, there’s a surprising amount of humor. Alan even manages to slip in some sly, almost-anachronistic wit without it seeming awkward or intrusive:

Toyo and Futoshi paid the admission price and climbed up the trail that circled the huge landscaped hill. At the top, they stood on a little observation deck and looked out over Asakusa Park.

“I think I can see my house from here,” Futoshi said.

In short (well, too late for that, obviously), this is a very strong book, and a good fit for its intended audience. I look forward to many more such works from Mr. Gratz in the future.

p.s. Alan, the check bounced. Please send another.

6 comments to “Baseball, Bushido-style”

  1. Thanks, Eisha! Sorry about that check. It, um, ahem, must have been the bank’s fault.

    Still, I’m not sure I’ve gotten all we contracted for. Could you please remove the word “sidekicky,” and at least pretend to like baseball? I can prepare some baseball-fan dialogue for you to cut and paste if you like.

    Also, the cover scan could be larger.

    Seriously, thanks for the great review, even if you don’t like baseball. 🙂 Love the site, by the way – although I think you need to list more children’s book authors and illustrators . . .

    And I’m thinking about adding the “I think I can see my house from here” line to every book I write. What do you think, too cliche?

    – Alan

  2. What’s wrong with the word “sidekicky?” Aside from it not being a real word, I mean. Futoshi is an honorable addition to the great sidekick tradition – he gets Toyo into trouble, which speeds the plot along; he provides much-needed comic relief as a foil to Toyo’s pensive sadness. Literature needs sidekicks! Sidekicks Unite!

    If you slip “I can see my house…” into every book from now on, I will totally pay you $5. I also really liked the tea-scented baseball – maybe you can make that a running theme in all your books, too? There’s another $5 in it for you…

  3. Oh, and p.s.: Like hell am I going to pretend to like baseball. When I read Underworld by Don DeLillo, I almost thought I got it, but… now I live in Red Sox Nation, these people are serious in a religious-cult-type way, and they can smell a faker a mile off.

  4. Yo, yo, yo! What’sup E-money? Yeah, it’s the SK crew excited like everything that you’ve got a blog. We’ve bookmarked it! It’s good to hear you still read and write and I like the site, too. Kewl, as the kids say. Fredda, Karen, the twins (Ashley and Sara), Michelle (remember her?) and me, (Bill, in case you’ve forgotten) all send our very best to you up in Red Sox land! (Crazier than Vol fans? Impossible!)

    Oh and wasn’t Alan’s book really good! Heck, I knew he had it in him and boy, did he ever. We’ve been corresponding about writer’s workshops and such of late. Have you seen his blog/website? I gotta get on the stick to keep up you lot. Coming soon: the blog from the Superfund Site–off Martin Mill, LOL.

    Keep it up!

  5. ‘Sup, y’all? It is so seriously lovely to hear from you. Thanks for chiming in, and please say hello to everyone for me!

    I have seen his blog, and the website rocks like a hurricane. Glad to hear you’re still writing. Remember the 800s? Good times…

  6. Hmmm….another great candidate for Scieszka’s “Guys Read” campaign….let’s tell him! — jules

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