Thursday, May 30, 2019

Reading Through History: The Master Puppeteer by Katherine Paterson (1975)

Jiro, the son of peasant Hanji the puppetmaker and his wife, Isako, whose other children all died of the plague, is starving to death in feudal Osaka, Japan. When he is offered the opportunity to become an apprentice for Yoshida at the puppet theater, he decides to leave his family behind in favor of a better life for himself. As he befriends the other apprentices, including Yoshida's own son, Kinshi, Jiro does his best to fulfill his role within the theater without offending those above him. He worries, however, about the welfare of his parents and wonders about Saburo, a Robin Hood-esque samurai and hero of the poor who has been stirring things up around Osaka.

This is a short book, but a complex one. Paterson, who was born in China and worked as a missionary in Japan, studied both Chinese and Japanese history, and she clearly did a lot of research on this time period, resulting in a book very different from her American-based works of realistic fiction.  I know very little about feudal Japan, but Paterson helps her readers to identify the main conflicts of the time, and to empathize with the extreme poverty of the peasants. She also brings to life the fascinating behind-the-scenes world of kabuki theater, and the illustrations by Haru Wells provide a lot of good context for readers who might otherwise have difficulty imagining the puppets and how they are manipulated.

It took me a good 40 pages to feel invested in Jiro, which is a lot in a 179-page novel, but once he enters the theater and becomes close with Kinshi, he comes to life as a character, and then it becomes easier to settle in to the story. It didn't flow as easily for me as something like Jacob Have I Loved or The Great Gilly Hopkins, but it also took me further outside of my reading comfort zone than I have gone with this author in the past, and I think it's a good thing that it stretched my reading muscles a bit.

The Master Puppeteer would be a good assignment for middle schoolers who have some background knowledge about feudalism. I will definitely want my girls to read it when we study this time period. It would also be interesting to pair this book with The Shakespeare Stealer, as theater and theft both figure heavily into both books.

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