December 05, 2006

Besoburo - International Pasttime

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

1890 is a time of transition in the nation of Japan. 16-year-old Toyo Shimada prepares to begin the year at First Higher School of Tokyo while around him is a world that still echoes with the last of the Shoguns. Modern life is catching up to a society that was feudal for centuries. Japan is rapidly increasing its pace as it catches up with the Western world. Bustling trains, pitch roofed houses, black business suits and umbrellas replace a slower pace, horses, kimonos, tatami mats and samurai.
The new Japan is not a world that is always in agreement with itself. Despairing that there is no place for the samurai any longer, Toyo's favorite uncle Koji commits suicide in a beautifully stylized seppuku ritual that nonetheless is brutal, frightening and painful for a young boy to see. Toyo is torn between the old world of privilege and social stratification and the new; his love for the new gaijin (American) game of besuboro (baseball); his desire to be on the Ichiko team; and the knowledge that his intelligent journalist father, who believes strongly in the old ways, is preparing to leave him the way his uncle did.

School doesn't make matters any easier. Toyo is trying to make a place for himself but it's an all-boys school, and the instructors and his fellow students are tough. The students are under self-rule, that is, the Seniors are in charge, and from them come brutal midnight beatings and hazings and terror as the younger boys try to be worthy of the Ichiko name while remaining unbruised. There is harshness and little room for humor or mistakes in school, and it seems there's a lot of growing up to do in a short time. Toyo realizes as his father comes to school to teach him the bushido, the way of the warrior in preparation for him to learn to be a samurai, that he is running out of time. He has to prove to his father that there is a place for the greatness of spirit that the bushido teaches, and the honorable ways of the samurai in this new Japan, or else he will have to take his turn at finishing his father's seppuku ritual. Can Toyo's father ever understand the balance that can be found in baseball?

A gorgeously stark novel that finds its own pace, Samurai Shortstop is an enjoyable novel that captures the small beauties and touches of humor in a harsh and disciplined world, and depicts the poignancy of losses and change in a new world. Detailed and deeply researched, this historical fiction underscores the place that baseball has held for years in Japan's national consciousness.

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