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Tragic novel with sensitive topics
Aquinas Academy in Greensburg, PA
I read the book Shipwrecks, by Akira Yoshimura, a Japanese novel translated into English and published in 1982. The book is a fictional coming-of-age story set in a medieval Japanese coastal village. It tells the story of a young boy, Isaku, as he learns, in the face of starvation and poverty, to become the provider for his mother and younger siblings. Isaku grows as a fisherman -- and as a man -- over the course of a three year period while his father is away, sold off in bondage. During this time, the seasons change, the villagers experience highs and lows, but ultimately Isaku faces the terrible tragedy of smallpox decimating the village population.
This novel is tricky. Though it is clearly high-quality literature, it is also decidedly not children’s literature. At first glance, it seems as though the target audience for the story would be a young person, because the main character is only nine years old. Furthermore, it is written on a reading level that a middle school student would have no problem comprehending. But this coming-of-age story is not for children. The interest level of this book strikes me as actually being more on the adult level. Some of the subject matter that it describes (and not just alludes to, but details) would not be appropriate for 11-13 year-olds: multiple suicides, sexual intercourse courting practices, wives who are beaten by their husbands, infants and children who die, pregnant women who must expose their vaginas during ceremonies, and graphic descriptions of disease-ridden family members. If the reader came in contact with just one or two of these topics through the course of the story, I think this book could potentially be more manageable for the classroom, but because there is so much tragedy and so many difficult topics in the story, it is not one that I would be eager to share with students.
Although I am not a secondary school teacher, I would question whether this book would be an appropriate choice for high school students. I’m just not sure that it would appeal to teenagers. The first two-thirds of the novel moves slowly and is fairly repetitive, as the reader learns the rhythm of the village and of Isaku’s life through descriptions of the sea and the mountains as they change in colors, flora, and fauna. The narrator conveys the passing of time through these repetitive descriptions of the passing of seasons. The action doesn’t really come until the final third of the novel, so I think it would be difficult to sustain a student’s interest in this book. And when the action does come, it is essentially pure tragedy. There is a glimmer of hope in the final line of the book, but not the kind of hope that is usually the saving grace of other equally fraught fiction for young adults.
The book is interesting, though, and I could envision selections of this book being used for history lessons on the terror and tragedy of smallpox, or on Japanese religious and spiritual practices. There was one passage that I thought would be very interesting to use if a class were perhaps exploring Japanese religious beliefs about the afterlife. In Chapter 6 (p.111-113 in my copy of the book), the main character Isaku describes his picture of the afterlife. It is a scene filled with natural beauty and underwater imagery of Isaku’s village’s ancestral souls. Passages like this one in Shipwrecks would be useful for a class discussion about the role of nature and religious beliefs in medieval Japan, but I would advise against using the book in its entirety with younger or less mature students.