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The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn
Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
Penguin Philomel, 214 pages

The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn
Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
The Hooblers are historians and authors of over 60 books, both fiction and non-fiction, mostly for young readers. They are the authors of the well-loved American Family Album series, including The Japanese American Family Album, which was named a Carter G. Woodson Honor Book in 1997. The Society for School Librarians International chose their book Showa: The Era of Hirohito for a best book award in 1991, and they have been cited for excellence by the Library of Congress, the Parents' Choice Foundation, Bank Street College, the International Reading Association, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the New York Public Library. The Hooblers make their home in New York City. They have one daughter and are active in community affairs.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

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In early 18th-century Japan, Seikei, the young son of a tea salesman, dreams of becoming a samurai, but of course, given his social standing, cannot. Seikei witnesses a strange manifestation at the door and in the hallway outside his inn room. When Lord Hakuseki, a vain and uncultured samurai lord staying at the inn finds that the huge ruby he was planning to present to the shogun has been stolen, the authorities, namely judge Ooka, are called in. Judge Ooka deputizes Seikei who eventually joins a travelling kabuki theatre troupe on their way to play for the shogun. Evidence points to the troupe's leader Oishi, but what are his plans and what is the new play he plans to present before the shogun? It's all part of the mystery.

To grossly oversimplify, Japan is a country whose spirituality in the 18th century (and to a great extent today) was largely bound up in the Buddhist religion, but whose traditions, rituals, and what Westerners might call superstitions were firmly based in the extremely ancient Shinto religion. A small part of these latter beliefs include the direct descendance of the Imperial family from the sun-goddess Amaterasu and the existence of numerous spirits or ghosts of ancestors and places termed kami.

The authors of The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn, who have also published non-fiction titles about Japan, have obviously either done a great deal of research or have lived in Japan at some time or other -- probably both. One can tell by the quality of their depiction of feudal Japan that they have a sense of Japanese culture well beyond that acquired by watching a few Akira Kurosawa movies.

The adventure, mystery, and the portrayal of Japanese culture is well suited for the suggested ages of 9-12, but is perhaps a bit thin in detailing for adults. However, I might be a little over-critical since auditing a university-level course in eastern Asian religions last year. (Sometimes you're better off not knowing too much.) Still the Hooblers have worked in an interesting historical figure in the person of judge Ooka (a Japanese Sherlock Holmes), a vast improvement on the Peter Lorre-Mr Moto archetype. The Hooblers have also accurately portrayed the ironclad adherence to the "death before dishonour" credo of the samurai in its society context. Seikei's life within the kabuki theatre troupe and the nature and plots of the plays make it clear that Japanese theatre was/is just as complex and vibrant as anything from William Shakespeare through Tom Stoppard. It was interesting to get inside this aspect of Japanese culture, one that is largely ignored in the Hollywood-version of feudal Japan.

When one thinks of ghost stories in the West one immediately thinks of haunted castles in England and a horde of Victorian writers from Dickens to LeFanu. However, the ghost story tradition in China and Japan is millennia old. Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), born in Greece, raised in Ireland and later a reporter in the United States, lived from 1890 onward in Japan, becoming a naturalized Japanese citizen, marrying a native Japanese wife, and living as the Japanese. Hearn was the first Westerner to understand and explain Japanese culture to the west. His collection of traditional Japanese fairy tales and ghost stories In Ghostly Japan (1899) and Kwaidan (1904) remain cornerstones of such literature, as does his non-fiction title Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation (1904). Four of the stories from Kwaidan were filmed by Akira Kurosawa (of The Seven Samurai fame) in a lavish, visually stunning, but grossly over-budget film of the same name.

Given the title The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn I had been hoping for much more of the fine ghostly legends of Japan, but there wasn't anything but the most fleeting allusion to this ancient tradition. Still there is plenty of material in the book to entertain young readers.

Overall, The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn is well crafted book, rich in detail for its target audience, and with pleasant non-threatening characters and minimal graphic violence. It is certainly better than much of the usual stereotyped ninja/samurai fare from television and film at showing Japan as a society as complex, evolved and interesting as our own, yet vastly different.

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.


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