Hunt for the Bamboo Rat by Graham Salisbury
In this enthralling, fast-paced young adult novel, we see the unique role Zenji Wantanabe played in World War II. Interestingly, Hunt for the Bamboo Rat was based on several true stories, mainly that of Richard Sakakida on which Zenji’s character is based.
The novel opens in 1941 pre-war Honolulu where as a recent high school graduate, Zenji is working in a warehouse. However, soon fate intervenes in the form of his high school ROTC officer, Colonel Blake. Blake remembered Zenji and his affinity for languages well and recommended his name for a special role. After convincing his widowed mother to allow Zenji to enlist, Zenji is sent to the Philippines. Initially, the Japanese-American Zenji thinks he is to be a translator as he is fluent in both English and Japanese-language and culture.
Upon arrival in Manilla Harbor, Zenji discovers he is to be a spy. Given orders, he is to integrate himself into the Philippines’ thriving visiting Japanese businessmen culture. This worked very much to American Military Intelligence’s mission. However, after several months, Pearl Harbor is bombed and shortly thereafter the Philippines is also attacked. Zenji is recalled to base where he assists his commanding officer with translations and interrogations.
In the spring of 1942, the Japanese invade the Philippines Islands. Zenji is told to never admit his military role and say he was only a civilian translator. This is when the action truly begins. We follow Zenji as he moves from military base to military base as the Americans retreat, ending finally at Corregidor in the tunnel system. When the American forces surrender, Zenji is among them. He sticks to his story, but faces unspeakable horrors at the hand of his captors. He spends the remainder of the war in Japanese hands. However, he does find small ways to fight back while in their hands that end in a major event.
The writing in this novel was suburb. The suspense occurred throughout and hooks the reader; one does not simply want to set this book down. Salisbury never revealed the full plans about Zenji’s mission until the last-minute, then the assorted history events afterwards and Zenji’s roles in them helped keep the suspense going. With the singular focus on one main character, this is very much driven by Zenji’s experiences and fears. And since he went through many historic events and was subjected to a variety of the horrors of war, Zenji serves as a way to teach these events to younger readers. Alongside this, many real-life people make cameo appearances, including General Wainwright.
In all, this novel was remarkable and one of the best young adult books I have read in years. I think both young adults and adults would appreciate it. Historically speaking, the events were all covered well. My only thought was that Zenji started out the novel too young to have the role he filled, but he grew into it as events progressed. Also, two of the secondary character’s Zenji worked with in the in the beginning of the novel are also based on true stories.
Comparing Bamboo Rat to Salisbury’s other similarly themed works, his writing has only gotten better with time. His first book on the Japaneses-American experience in World War II, Under the Blood-Red Sun (1994) was the first book to address the topic, but I found it lackluster. Perhaps that was because that particular novel was heavily focused on what life was like for middle school boys, with a major focus on baseball; otherwise really not my up of tea. I have never been able to locate a copy Under the Blood-Red Sun‘s direct sequel House of the Red Fish (2005; short of buying it on Amazon). However, the second companion book, The Eyes of the Emperor (2005) was a great read. It nearly matched the action of Hunt for the Bamboo Rat and focused on the true story of how Japanese Americans were used to train military attack dogs (not a read for the faint of heart). It also showed how many genuine friendships were formed both within and outside of ethnic lines (something also addressed in Under the Blood-Red Sun).
For the teachers and home-school parents out there, Salisbury offers curriculum material on his website alongside other worthwhile information.
Note: This was the second novel I picked up at the Penguin-Random House booth at a recent conference. Very glad I did! I nearly passed it up.