Published by Harcourt on January 1st 1970
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This book is set in the very harsh seaside village on the coast of Japan. The villagers rely on the Ocean to stay alive – but not in the sense one would assume. True, they are fishermen and they train their entire lives to fish and live off the Ocean, but the Ocean serves another purpose for them as well. The villagers build large salt cauldrons which serve two purposes: they sell the salt to neighboring villages and the fires from the alt burning cauldrons lure passing ships during the O-fune-sama (winter sailing) to the shore. The men in the village, then kill the crew and take what they can from the ships to feed their families.
This story is told through the POV of nine year old Isaku who is considered the “man of the house” after his father has become an indentured servant for three years. This is common in the village. Often, to avoid starvation and to have income for their families, villages enter into/sell themselves into servitude. The reader silently watches as an innocent child ages in 3 years. Isaku is living in a brutal and harsh environment. He is surrounded by poverty, starvation, death, and brutality. He goes from being an innocent child to one that has been forced to mature and harden in order to survive.
One winter during O-fune-sama, another shipped in lured to shore and caught on the rocks. What cargo does it carry? Death. Death in the form of small pox is what this ship contains. Isaku watches as his already weak village succumbs to the disease. He watches as people in his village die. He is helpless as his village elder makes the decision to banish those who are sick to leave the village. Those leaving include members of his family and a girl for whom he has feelings. Left alone he has a bittersweet reunion with his father.
I read this book years ago and loved it. I like to look up book lists. “Best of” lists if you will. I can’t even recall what list this book was on but I found it to be intriguing and was pleased to see that my local library had a copy. This is a book is complex. I loved that the villagers lived by a strict moral code did not have a problem with luring ships and taking what was not theirs in order to survive. This is a book about survival. What will people do in order to survive and does Karma come into play? Life in this village is harsh and people seem harsh – such as Isaku’s Mother. But is she really harsh or is she just preparing her children for the harshness of life? Is she forcing them to be tough and strong, is she under too much stress herself and dong what she needs to do in order to keep herself and her children alive? Acceptance is a theme. Having to accept what you need to do in order to survive but also having to accept that life is brutal. No matter what comes their way, the villagers seem to keep going. They go on with their lives. People live, people die. Like the waves of the Ocean, the village has it’s own ebb and flow: life, death, acceptance.
There is not a lot of action in this book. This is also not a BIG book, but it is a book with heart and soul. Shipwrecks is haunting and heartbreaking. It’s a coming of age tale during the time of starvation. This is a quiet book that will sneak up on you. It is very thought provoking. I remember sitting and thinking about this book long after I had finished reading. The translation into English was beautifully done as well. If I did not know that this book had a translator, I would assume that it had been written in English.