Here’s something different from the prizewinning Japanese author (One Man’s Justice, 2001, etc.): a historical novel about a preadolescent boy who leaves his homeland and loses his nationality.
Thirteen-year-old Hikotaro joins the crew of a merchant ship captained by his stepfather, following his mother’s death in 1850. Having transferred to another vessel, he survives a violent storm, is rescued by an American ship, and lands in San Francisco, where (having been renamed “Hikozo” by American shipmates) he learns that Japan’s ruling Shogunate’s “national seclusion policy” may prevent him from ever returning home. Indeed, throughout the next two decades his life consists of gradual assimilation into American culture (aided primarily by a kindly Baltimore revenue officer) and repeated attempts to make his way back to Japan—initially aboard a warship commanded by Commodore Perry, later as an increasingly Americanized (and expertly bilingual) clerk and interpreter employed by various governmental and commercial interests. Both increasing samurai violence against Westerners and closed opportunities caused by the US Civil War keep Hikozo (by now a naturalized American citizen, hence a.k.a. “Joseph Heco”) dangling unhappily between his native and adoptive countries—until he finally returns to Japan and eventually dies there. Storm Rider, the fourth of Yoshimura’s novels to be translated into English, is a hastily narrated and curiously muted story, burdened with excess exposition and awkward construction (e.g., his tendency to flatten scenes with interpolated summaries of peripheral characters’ subsequent histories). Its action is tediously redundant (though not at all uninteresting). Furthermore, Hikozo is an essentially opaque character who appears to lack sexual or romantic feelings, or any emotions beyond homesickness—and has a Zelig-like capacity for briefly encountering historical characters who have little to do with the story of his life on which we wish Yoshimura would concentrate more fully.
Much less dramatic and satisfying than Yoshimura’s tightly plotted earlier fiction. A disappointment.