G.L. Tysk’s passion for Japanese history, whaling and nautical fiction are evident in the details in The Sea-God at Sunrise. The meticulous research that went into this novel is impeccable. I remain shocked that not only is this Ms. Tysk’s debut novel but it is also self-published.
Shima and his little brother, Takao, find themselves isolated on an island off the coast of Japan after being shipwrecked during a typhoon. A few days have passed and the boys are suffering from dehydration and starvation when they are discovered and rescued by crew members of the American whaling ship, The Archer. Unfortunately, it is 1841 and during the Shogun rule of Japan. Feudal Japan does not allow outsiders to reach their shores and these two Japanese boys are considered tainted and dishonored after being aboard a ship with foreign devils. The young boys, despite their desperate yearning to return to the shores of Japan, are forced to take refuge on The Archer and try to find ways to embrace their new lives.
This novel is unique in that it is told from the perspective of two protagonist characters. There is Shima who is the eldest Japanese fisherman boy and Ellis who is a ship mate aboard the American whaling ship. In a book that is built around the conflict between two cultures and the adjustment of two boys into a new world it is fascinating to be able to read the story from two perspectives. In one chapter we can feel Shima’s distrust of the foreigners and his fear over being surrounded by men who look, act and speak differently than him and his brother. In the next chapter we will read the continuation of the story from the perspective of Ellis who is trying to make sense of these two Japanese boys, understand why their country won’t allow their return, and break through the cultural barriers to help them adjust. It’s an intriguing contrast of cultures and a very enjoyable read. Takao, the younger brother, isn’t identified as a protagonist that writes his own chapters of the story but he does remain a central figure. I’m supposing that because of his youth he has an easier time learning the English language and adapting to life aboard The Archer.
All of the characters in The Sea-God at Sunrise are well-developed and likable. Although there is little detail into the history of the characters prior to their whaling life aboard The Archer, Ms. Tysk provides just enough information to provide a general history. Reading through this story it’s easy to understand that Cuffee enjoys life at sea, Captain and Cassock have a deeply rooted personal history in which a past tragedy has torn a major rift inside the friendship, Hutch is a compassionate spiritual man who provides moral guidance to the ship and Ellis is a young man trying to find his way on a ship sailing the wild and unpredictable seas.
G.L. Tysk describes, in the author’s short biography, that she spent time studying abroad in Japan and was inspired by Herman Melville and his nautical fiction, Moby Dick. While Ms. Tysk’s writing style is similar to Melville it is more apparent that she drew great inspiration from Moby Dick and her nautical research. The Sea-God at Sunrise is also loosely based on the true-life story of John Manjiro which is another fascinating story I encourage you to research. Ms. Tysk wrote with a comfort about the sea and nautical language that would lead you to believe she had spent her life at sea. Her book, her debut novel, is absolute perfection. I recently learned that she is currently working on a sequel to The Sea-God at Sunrise and I, for one, cannot wait to read it.
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