Saturday, April 15, 2006

Shogun, by James Clavell



I love to read and I always have more than one book going at a time; usually one fiction, one self-help, and one other, either history, biography, or human interest. Recently, I was lamenting the end of a really good fiction book, the kind you never want to end, and I wondered out loud to my husband about what I should read next. He gave me one of his standard replies, "You should read Shogun." We have had an old, paperback copy of the 1975 bestselling novel by James Clavell, but whenever I've seen the thickness of the 1200 pages and the picture of the Japanese samurai sword on the front cover, I've been put off. The ugly truth is that while I love the Japanese people, the history of their culture has never really interested me. "But," my husband told me, "you will understand our own history much better, if you know theirs as well." Over the years, I've always shrugged him off, but this time, I listened to my husband. I picked up Shogun and opened it to the first page.

The next ten days were full of some of the most reading I've done in years. Back in high school and college, I had time to read for hours on end, or stay up late into the night, finishing a good read. Yet, today, with working part time and homeschooling three children, I hardly have the time or inclination to spend more than thirty minutes at a time on a book (if I'm lucky). But Shogun captured me from the very start.

The book begins with Englishman John Blackthorne, piloting a ship from the Netherlands, across the Pacific Ocean toward "the Japans." The time is the 17th century, when the samurais and European exploration were at their height. When Blackthorne's ship nearly wrecks and the half-starved crew limps ashore in medieval Japan, they are met with a culture entirely different from their own. While they think of the Japanese as barbaric in their seeming disregard for human life, the Japanese refer to the Europeans as barbarians, because of their crude ways and uncleanliness. Thus begins an epic tale of Blackthorne's introduction to the society, the concepts, the worldviews, and the lifestyle of the Japanese. He learns of their love for order, neatness, and especially cleanliness. He learns about the pecking order, and how everyone is owned, controlled, or manipulated by someone else. He learns about their definition of honor and commitment. He learns that marriage and human relationships in Japan are handled in ways that are completely foreign to him.

As we, the readers, accompany Blackthorne on his immersion into the medieval Japanese culture (for we don't just read the book, we do actually accompany him), we see what he sees, feel what he feels, and we are shocked and horrified, pleased and amazed, at all the things he encounters. From the powerful Lord Toranaga to the evil Yabu, the honorable but ruthless Omi, and the beautiful, kind, Mariko, we find ourselves becoming part of this foreign culture and assimilating into it, as Blackthorne does.

Shogun has everything: passion, war, violence, history, love, honor, friendship, and hope. While reading this book, I found myself being transported to Japan each time I opened the pages. I found myself carrying the book with me wherever I went, so if there was a chance to sneak in a few pages, I could take it. I learned, got angry, loved, and grieved with Blackthorne. I wrestled with the hard issues, right along side him. And at the end of the book, after 1200 pages, I was not ready for it to end. If Shogun went on for thousands and thousands of pages, I would continue to read, continue to live the life there that Blackthorne, while he made plans for returning to England, was finally learning to live.

Now I will forever have these characters in my heart, as if they were more than characters in a fictional book, but rather, real people from real history. Shogun is long, but I would not remove one page or even once sentence from the story. It is easy to read and I would highly recommend it to any adult.

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