Akira Yoshimura’s "SHIPWRECKS"
A book review by Dennis D. McDonald
In medieval Japan a tiny isolated fishing village ekes out in existence by fishing, hard work, and voluntary servitude to merchants in the next town over the mountain. Sometimes it’s the fathers that go away for a time. Sometimes families sell their daughters into bondage.
Nine-year-old Isaku’s father is away for three years. His mother makes do through frugality and teaching the boy to shoulder the fishing responsibility of an older man.
It’s a harsh and austere existence with starvation just a bad fishing season away. But there is always a small hope that, every few years, the villagers will be able to lure passing cargo ships to wreck on the jagged rocks just offshore. They do this by lighting fires on the shore at night. The fires are used to boil cauldrons of seawater to generate salt that is sold to the villagers in the next town over the mountain. But the dual purpose of the night fires is to trick passing ships to approach and crash against the jagged reefs. The townspeople can then loot the ship’s cargo after disposing of the remaining crew.
Isaku’s story plays out over several years as author Yoshimura describes in minute detail the ebb and flow of the seasons and how the boy, his family, and the townspeople work constantly to support their meager existence. The English translation by Mark Ealey is wonderful as the actions of the townspeople play out against the colors and sounds of changing weather that range from beautiful to horrific.
This is an unhurried novel. The reader looking for surprises or action may be disappointed. Instead the story that unfolds gradually over time as Isaku grows to young manhood and shoulders the responsibilities of his absent father. His mother sternly and wisely forces him to work. He gradually learns how to successfully fish and care for and feed his mother and siblings. It’s a harsh life but there is no complaining.
This might be a good novel for young people to read especially those who have grown up without experiencing the harsh existence of those less fortunate. Their book reports would be make an interesting read but might be difficult to grade.
Book review copyright 2019 by Dennis D. McDonald