With school starting back Monday, I know that much of my autumn reading will consist of textbooks (At least I teach literature. Calculus books would be unbearable for me.) and student papers. Of course, anyone who knows me knows that while my school responsibilities may slow my pleasure reading, they never stop it altogether. What a hypocrite I would be to teach people the purpose and pleasure of reading and writing if I didn't do them myself.
One of my last books I read this summer was also one of the best. David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet came highly recommended by a reading friend who was only a hundred pages in and "already hooked." Mitchell's story is set on an Dutch-settled island separated from Nagasaki by a bridge at the turn of the nineteenth century. Jacob De Zoet has signed on for a five-year stint with the Dutch Indies company, hoping to make his fortune and to return to marry his beloved Anna.
Politics--not only between the Japanese and the Dutch but among the Dutch colleagues as well--continually frustrate his hopes and opportunities. He develops relationships with an aging doctor who teaches medicine and with an interpreter, and he becomes fascinated with a young Japanese woman, a doctor's daughter with a burn scar over half her face, ruining her chances for a good marriage.
From the beginning, DeZoet feels protected by the lucky family Psalter, a bullet still firmly wedged into its cover, that has passed to him from his uncle, a minister. Since any material of a Christian nature is strictly forbidden, he must keep it hidden. He finds protection from one or two people who choose to look the other way, particularly since he has in his possession other books of genuine interest, especially to his friend the interpreter.
Mitchell's book is set on the brink of change in the world. Japan is still clinging to isolation and tradition. The Dutch have passed their peak, much to the surprise of those who are stranded by the edge of Nagasaki, and the British and Americans are gaining power in the world.
This is no casual beach read or page-turner thriller (although I'll admit I read it on the beach.) At first, I found it difficult to distinguish the characters. This is the point where I would tell my students to make a list with notes. The attention required, however, is worth the mental effort. I loved the book, and I loved its protagonist, its hero, Jacob DeZoet.