The Master Puppeteer

The Master Puppeteer
Katherine Paterson
Haru Wells (Illustrator)

As I think I have let slip a time or two, I find immense comfort in reading books about, or taking place in areas that I know well. After discovering a website that allowed setting searches for novels, I typed, "Osaka" and up popped an unexpected children's book, The Master Puppeteer. 

One click purchase did the rest, and my daughter and I had an adventure to take on together.

Here we have the story of a puppet maker's son, Jiro, who, in an attempt to move out of poverty, takes on an apprenticeship as a puppeteer at the Bunraku theatre in the theatre district of Osaka. 

For anyone unfamiliar, Bunraku is a Japanese style of drama, using puppets. It is probably most recognizable as the puppeteering with the puppeteers in full view of the audience. No hiding above, or behind anything. It may be mocked at times as an odd choice (I believe I've seen that done anyhow), but it does allow for fully bodied, fully moving puppets, even hundreds of years ago.

Jiro starts as an assistant and begins to move his way up the ranks, until he is able to battle the other students for the part of leg puppeteer. The whole system is very Japanese, and comparable to the image of the sushi chef, who 5 years into his job finally knows how to properly make the rice. Perfection takes practice, and nothing less is accepted. 

All this time, Jiro works hard, but with a full stomach, while those outside starve at the hands of the greedy landowners. The only glimpse of hope is the outlaw Saburo, an Osakan Robin Hood, stealing from the store owners and giving to the starving. 

But who is Saburo? 

The plot switches between this question and descriptions of the work in the theatre, until it all mashes together in a reasonably fun conclusion. 

I enjoyed much of this YA novel. The story kept a good pace and a few mysteries right up to the end. For the kids, and even this Poirot completists, some surprises jumped out from an author very able to keep us looking at one hand, while the other kept its secret. 

This book seemed best for pre-teen, although some of the language was a bit tough for a second-language kid of 10. I'd recommend it to any parent of kids around that age for them to tackle, (or read it together if you have the chance).