Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by Pamela S. Turner. Charlesbridge, 2016. 256 pages.
What It Is: Biography
What It’s About: Twelfth century samurai Minamoto Yoshitsune’s turbulent life and the rise of the samurai culture. Yoshitsune was one of the early samurai to practice a ritual (and gory) suicide in order to avoid being captured by the enemy. But his life up until that point was no less peaceful. On the run from birth, he found refuge first in a monastery and later in wealthy estate before taking on a leadership role in his family. But as his family rose to power, strife between him and his brother, strife between their family and the opposing samurai family, and general instability in Japan meant for a gripping, action-packed, and often violent existence.
What Works: The pacing is excellent in this book–hard to put down! The prose is well done. Words like “probably” and “he might have…” help indicate where the author is making educated guesses based on her research of the time period and culture. Speaking of research…. fully 60 pages are end matter: chapter notes, author’s notes, timelines, glossary, index. This gal has done her homework!
What Doesn’t Work: For a biography, not much. Expertly crafted and researched, this is a terrific example of a biography. But in terms of a biography to “teach” or “inspire” character traits…this might not be the best choice. That’s the subject matter’s fault, though, not the author’s. She attempts to show ways in which Yoshitsune is honorable and treats his comrades with dignity, but a samurai is still a samurai. Violence is the answer.
What I Think/Recommend: If you are studying Medieval Japan with anyone eighth grade or older, this is a fantastic addition. Anyone simply interested in history and/or Japanese culture will also find this a riveting read. But be forewarned: as the back of the book states (accurately), a lot of people die in this book…. and most are NOT from natural causes. The author isn’t overly graphic in her descriptions, by any means. But the samurai solve all their problems with violence and the weapons of the day meant, aside from archery, the battles were up close and personal.
One final note: Yoshitsune’s consort gets good attention (and she was heroic in her own way!), but some families may wish to know this beforehand. There are no graphic scenes; the text merely mentions that the two are not married and, eventually, that she is carrying his child.