The Master Puppeteer
is a historical novel for young adults by Katherine Paterson. First published in 1975, the book centers around an apprentice puppeteer determined to help his people when bandits raid and pillage the town. The Master Puppeteer
won the 1977 National Book Award for Children’s Literature, and it received various other award nominations. Paterson is an internationally bestselling author famed for her children’s books. She typically writes about protagonists who must sacrifice something they care about to succeed. She is one of only a few authors to win both the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award.
The protagonist in The Master Puppeteer
is Jiro. He is a 13-year-old boy living in 18th-century Japan. He’s very clumsy and everyone believes that he’s cursed. His mother blames him for the deaths of his sister and two brothers. Jiro worries that he’ll never amount to anything. It doesn’t help that Hanji, Jiro’s father, is a master craftsman famed across Osaka. Jiro assumes that he can’t live up to his father’s greatness.
One day, Jiro accompanies Hanji to the local theater. Hanji delivers new puppets to the theater master for the next show. Here, Jiro meets Yoshida, the theater’s master puppeteer. Yoshida asks Hanji what he plans on doing with Jiro, and he offers to train the boy as an apprentice. Hanji wants his son to carry on the family tradition, but Jiro’s mother isn’t so sure. She doesn’t feel that Jiro is capable of anything technical.
That night, Jiro reflects on his situation. His parents don’t make much money, and they’re always hungry. Jiro is a financial burden unless he can look after himself and provide for the family. Against his mother’s wishes, Jiro decides to take Yoshida’s offer. He runs away that night and signs up with the theater.
Meanwhile, trouble stirs in Osaka. Jiro’s family aren’t the only ones starving. Saburo, a bandit, causes mayhem every night. He steals from rich families and gives money to the poor, but the rich people take this out on the poor people. Jiro wants to restore balance to Osaka, but he doesn’t know where to start.
At the theater, Jiro meets Kinshi, Yoshida’s son. Kinshi is a gentle and patient boy who teaches Jiro everything he knows about the theater. Jiro takes on drudge work like memorizing scripts and opening the curtains, but he’s soon ready to learn puppetry. However, before he gets the chance, Jiro must return home to see his sick father.
When he gets home, Jiro discovers that Hanji is gone. He’s living with family in Kyoto while he recovers from a mysterious illness. Jiro’s mother can’t cope alone. She’s hungry and there’s no way to get more food. Jiro realizes that it’s his job now to look after the family because there’s no guarantee that Hanji will work again.
In the meantime, Saburo hangs a note outside the theater demanding that they perform a special play. The authorities think this is great because they’ll catch Saburo. Jiro isn’t so sure. He thinks that Saburo is dangerous and he doesn’t want to meet him. Yoshida insists that the play goes ahead.
Jiro wonders if Yoshida is really Saburo. He doesn’t understand why Yoshida wants to perform the play. Kinshi tells him to stop being so paranoid, but Jiro can’t let it go. He asks the script writer, Okada, what he thinks. Okada believes the play is a good idea and it doesn’t make Yoshida evil. Outnumbered, Jiro accepts that he might be wrong about Yoshida.
During the play, Saburo robs the police. In the chaos, someone leaves behind a samurai sword. Jiro knows that the sword, which belongs to a police officer, is key to discovering who Saburo is. Jiro wants a meeting with Yoshida to hand him the sword. If Yoshida is really Saburo, then he’ll take the sword and sell it for money to give to poor people.
Okada tells him this is a terrible plan because Jiro is wrong about Saburo’s identity. The real Saburo is Okada. Jiro thinks this is impossible, because Okada is blind and gentle. Okada reminds him that anyone can be a hero. Before Jiro decides what to do with this new information, his mother goes missing.
Jiro finds his mother at the police station. She’s with Kinshi. Kinshi explains that Jiro’s mother stole from a local merchant, but he took the blame. The police cut his hand off. Jiro hates his mother for letting this happen to Kinshi, but it’s too late to fix Kinshi’s brutalized body.
Jiro returns to the theater. He asks Yoshida to forgive him for how he acted. Yoshida forgives him because he knows Jiro had the best intentions. Jiro then asks Okada if he can stay at the theater, and Okada agrees. Kinshi leaves to work on a farm because he doesn’t think the puppet life is for him.