Tuesday, March 17, 2009

JAPAN IN HISTORICAL FICTION

Back in 2007 when I was researching Samurai Kids I stumbled upon Nikki White's site Japan in Historical fiction which contained wonderful reviews of adults and children's books. It's well worth a visit. Here I discovered a real gem, and a book which has become one of my favourites, The Plum Rain Scroll by Ruth Manley. It had won the Children's Book Council Book of the Year Award in 1979 but I had never heard of it. So I sought it out. UQP reissued it in 2005 with a wonderful cover I just had to have. You can find my review and the cover below. But the end to this story is when I was revisiting the site today, I discovered my own books listed. I had completed a full circle. And found someone with similar reading taste to me who enjoyed my books.

This is written for primary school children but the dry humour of the prose makes it a treasure for any age group. It is set in a sort of alternate Japan with no pretensions of being anything else, a Japan where samurai training schools compete annually in games and there just might be real tengu. Each of the children has some sort of handicap but regards this as an advantage not a hindrance but Fussell doesn't labour this point nor become preachy, instead she maintains a light tone. She pokes gentle fun at some of the conventions and clich├ęs of martial arts novels and films, particularly zen. "The hardest question is: 'What is the sound of one hand clapping?'" Niya tells us, adding, "Mikko knows the answer. Clapping with one hand is what a one-armed kid does all the time.... Great fun, the first of a series. - White Crane

The sequel to White Crane sees the motley crew of the Cockroach-ryu racing against their enemies to stop a war which is brewing among the mountain lords. To do this they must reach the Emperor who is staying at Toyozawa Castle.... This is another rollicking adventure set in an imaginary Japan, narrated by Niya in his inimitable style with his usual humorous asides ("'When you have lost your place in the world, you are enlightened and your mind will triumph in battle,' Sensei taught us. That's good news for me. I've got a terrible sense of direction and I get lost often. I'm on the fast track to enlightenment and victory."). - Owl Ninja

And as for Plum Rain... Here's my review

Plum Rain Scroll – Ruth Manley – Paperback – Young Adult $18.95 – Australian - UQP Press

The Plum Rain Scroll was first published in 1979 and won the CBCA Children’s Book of the Year. Re-released in 2005 it will immediately appeal to today’s young fantasy lovers. It is the first book in a series which also includes The Dragon Stone and The Peony Lantern.

This is an unusual story. While it reads like an authentic Japanese folk tale, it is a work of Western imagination. Queensland author, Ruth Manley, loved Japanese culture, history and literature, and it shows in her writing.

The hero, thirteen-year-old Taro, is an orphan odd job boy who lives with Aunt Piety and Uncle Thunder. It’s a strange household and they are living in peculiar times. Marishoten, the evil Black Iris Lord is preparing to overthrow the Mikado and enslave the world. Taro can see it in his dreams.

But first Marishoten must find the Plum Rain Scroll and uncover its secrets – immortality, the ability to turn metal into gold and the Unanswerable Word which paralyses enemies. The scroll’s whereabouts is unknown and only Aunt Piety can translate it. Then Aunt disappears too.

Taro and his companions; Prince Hachi (Lord Eight Thousand Spears), a ghost named Hiroshi, an Oni monster with a taste for poetry, a Roof Watcher creature and a young girl named Oboro and her strange dog; set off to find the scroll, rescue Aunty and save the Chrysanthemum throne.

The Plum Rain Scroll is peopled with eccentric characters such as Lord Sweet Potato, who spreads sweet potato seeds across Japan, but no-one laughs – because he’s also very good with a sword. Hiroshi is a samurai ghost – honourable and brave – except when it comes to umbrellas. He’s terrified of them.

The tone is both exotic and unfamiliar, as befits a story from another time and place. In ancient Idzumo, unusual is the usual state of affairs.

This is a wonderfully innocent tale of good triumphing over evil, of legend coming to life. Best suited to younger readers 8 -12 years and fantasy lovers. Adults with an interest in ancient cultures and folklore will also enjoy this one.

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