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Reader’s Den

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

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Welcome back to the Reader's Den — this is our final week discussing David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Last week we covered part two of the novel, which focused on the midwife, Orito's abduction to the Mount Shiranui Shrine. This week we will finish up with the last three sections of the book, which include chapters twenty-seven through forty-one, in which Mitchell once again presents new narrators. The first is the slave called Weh, who narrates a short chapter exposing many of the hardships of his daily life. It is from his perspective that we learn Jacob has been working to translate the Japanese scroll containing the edicts of the shrine.

A four-masted warship of the Elizabethan navy., Digital ID 1531386, New York Public LibraryThe other new voices in these last chapters are John Penhaligon, captain of a British warship that arrives in the Bay of Nagasaki intent on taking over the trading post for the English, and Magistrate Shiroyama, who finds his fate tied to the outcome of this conflict. Dejima residents Chief Van Cleef and first deputy Peter Fischer row out to the warship and are promptly taken hostage by the British crew. Fischer turns out to be amenable to working for the British and goes back to shore to persuade the Dutch and Japanese to allow Penhaligon to take over, with promises of wages and free transport. To his surprise he finds vehement opposition, led by Jacob de Zoet.

Evolution of the British Navy, Digital ID 1531336, New York Public Library

  • Captain Penhaligon is one of the most complex characters in the book. He comes to Japan worried about his worsening gout, and unable to forget the memories of his dead wife and son. Did you feel sympathetic towards him, or dislike him for his attack on Dejima, or both?
  • Why did Mitchell include the short chapter about Weh, when we never hear from again?
  • Why do Jacob and Dr. Marinus stay on the watchtower during the British attack, when they seem to face certain death?
  • After a meeting to discuss the demands of the British, Jacob gives Magistrate Shiroyama the Mount Shiranui Shrine, exposing the creeds of Enomoto's order. Shamed by his failing in military response to the attack, Shiroyama must commit an honorable suicide, but devises to take Enomoto with him. Were you surprised by this twist? Did you think that Enomoto could die?
  • Years later, at Dr. Marinus's funeral, Jacob finally sees Orito again. Did you hope that they might rekindle a romance, or are circumstances just too impossible? 
  • Eighteen years after arriving at Dejima, Jacob must leave and return to Zeeland without his son, who he fathered with a Japanese woman. Being half Japanese, his son is unable to leave Japan. How did you like the montage of Jacob's life back in Zeeland? At the moment of his death, he has a vision of Orito, who is still  in his thoughts all these years later. Why is she the last person he thinks of?
  • Now that you've finished the book, what did you think of it as a whole? Did all the different elements and storylines come together successfully?

Thank you for participating in the Reader's Den! Please leave your comments below. Come back in June, for a discussion of 11/22/63 by Stephen King.

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