I had never heard of this book before but it came to me as a prize for a drawing contest at the local library when I was a kid. I took notice of it many years later in my grand library of two shelves. Since then, I have read it several times and thoroughly enjoyed it. One is never too old for a children’s larger-than-life adventure.
A finalist for the Edgar Allan Poe award, The Ghost of Tokaido Inn by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler is a coming-of-age story set in 18th century Japan. Seikei is a merchant’s son who dreams of becoming an honourable samurai, a dream which is not permissible within the social hierarchy that is deeply embedded in the setting. But a business trip to sell tea with his father turns into the adventure of a lifetime for Seikei. His journey took me through a culture and philosophy of life that I knew little about before.
The narration of the book is kept simple to suit its young target audience. We see everything through Seikei’s youthful perspective as he learns about the conspiracies at hand, understands the characters involved in the story, and grows up through the experience. This gives the reader a perfect sense of suspense and view of everything that unfolds.
The authors effectively integrate what I later learned are two well-recognized Japanese stories: The Double Suicide at Sonezaki and The Forty-Seven Ronin. The latter is particularly significant and interesting. In Japan, until the adoption of its contemporary army system in the 19th century, samurai were trained warriors and an elite class of citizens who were respected and given many privileges above the average citizen. As I learned from this novel and further research, The Forty-Seven Ronin, or samurai without a leader, were real people that set out to avenge the disgrace and death of their leader, Asano Naganori. This tale depicts some interesting concepts of Bushido, a code of conduct all samurai must follow. Like the characters in the book, the ronin adhere to an unquestioned loyalty towards their leader, the maintenance of spotless honour in life and, if they fail in these, the act of seppuku or honourable suicide.
The novel alludes to this tale through a theatrical presentation for the characters and the ideals of Bushido are a key element of the story. The use of several allusions adds a good backdrop and context for foreshadowing, and helps readers to understand the very relevant cultural nuances of the time. This is aided by effective and not too lengthy descriptions of the cultural and physical aspects of the setting.
Throughout the story, I was rooting for Seikei and his dream, and felt moved by the characters I learned about. It left me thinking about what the concept of heroism means to me and how far I would go to stand by the ideas and people I believed in.
Please enjoy this short excerpt from the book:
He forced himself to stand, but his legs were shaking and weak. Ignore weakness, he told himself. Move forward without thinking. He took a step toward the door.
When he reached it, he had to remind himself again not to think of danger. Death had no meaning to the samurai, he told himself, for that is the fate of all and it does not matter if it comes today or tomorrow.
He slid the door open, and looked out in the corridor. At the far end, where the darkness was deepest, he saw the shadow moving. Seikei again found that fear silenced his voice. He was angry at himself, and stamped his foot.
As soon as he did this, the shadow began to sink into the floor. Seikei could hardly believe what he saw. Bit by bit, it shrank from sight until only its great horned head was visible. Then that disappeared as well. Nothing remained.
Looking for more reading recommendations: check out my fiction and non-fiction lists.