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Reader’s Den

May in the Reader's Den: "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" week three

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Ishiyakushi, Ishiyakushi-ji. = Ishiyakushi (Station 45), Ishiyakushi Temple., Digital ID 1699696 , New York Public Library

Welcome to week three of May in the Reader's Den! This week, we continue our discussion of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, focusing on Part II — chapters fourteen through twenty-six.

The second section of The Thousand Autumns is a complete departure from the first. Gone is the narrative voice of Jacob de Zoet, and the chronicling of life on Dejima. In part two, Mitchell shifts from Jacob's point of view to the perspectives of three other characters: Otane the herbalist, midwife Orito Aibigawa, and interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon.

It is in chapter fourteen, told from Otane's perspective, that we learn what has happened to Orito; She has become a sister at the Mount Shiranui Shrine, a secretive order about which there are many strange rumors. When we hear from Orito, we learn that she was abducted and forced to join the shrine against her will after the death of her father. Her step-mother sold her to Lord Abbot Enomoto to cover the deaths of her late husband. 

[The boy who drew cats.], Digital ID 478289, New York Public LibraryThe disturbing edicts of the shrine begin to unfold: sisters are impregnated by the order's monks in "engifting" rituals, and the children are taken from the new mothers, who are told that they are starting lives with adopted families in the world below. Through a scroll containing the shrine's creeds that was smuggled out by an escaped acolyte, the interpreter Uzaemon learns that there are much more disturbing realities to the rituals than the sisters know. He begins to put into motion a plan to free Orito from the imprisonment of her service, even though he knows it will likely mean his life.

  • Why does Enomoto choose to take Orito to his shrine, when the rest of the sisters were taken from brothels and the street? 
  • We learn in this section of the book that Uzaemon loves Orito, and had asked permission to marry her, which his father denied. What is it about her that both Jacob and Uzaemon are drawn to? Is she destined to be loved but alone?
  • Did you think that Uzaemon's plan to rescue Orito would be successful?
  • Just before Enomoto kills Uzaemon, he tells him that he is over six hundred years old, and that the consumption of the shrine's "gifts" is what has made him immortal. Were you surprised by this supernatural element of the book? 
  • What was your reaction to discovering that the yearly letters received by the sisters from their "gifts" were all fabricated?
  • Why does Orito choose to return to the shrine when she is so close to freedom? 

Please leave your comments below! Next week, we will cover the final sections of the book, chapters twenty-seven through forty-one, in which war comes to Dejima and Jacob uncovers the ugly truths of the Mount Shiranui Shrine!

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the thousand autumns of jacob de zoet

Is it possible to read the responses to your discussion questions? I live in Victoria BC, Canada and would greatly appreciate being able to share in this reading experience. Betsy

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