In the children's novel Of Nightingales That Weep
(1974), Chinese American author Katherine Paterson presents an epic
historic adventure set in medieval Japan, centering on eleven-year-old Takiko and the journey that takes her to the Emperor's court. Of Nightingales That Weep
is a story about courage and honor, family and duty, and the eternal question of whether a person can ever, truly, go home again. The Children's Literature Association honored the novel with the 1994 Phoenix Award.
In the Genpei War of the 1180s, the Heike and Genji peoples fight for the authority to rule Japan. Eleven-year-old Takiko is the daughter of a powerful samurai warrior. Takiko plays the koto—a thirteen-stringed Japanese instrument—and is greatly admired for both her koto-playing and singing talents.
Meanwhile, her father fights in a battle for the Heike. He is tragically killed in his efforts to stop the fighting from reaching the capital city. Devastated, Takiko is still struggling with her grief when her mother remarries a disfigured dwarf potter, Goro. His unorthodox appearance is off-putting to Takiko, and she uses that as an excuse to dislike her new stepfather. At first, Takiko nurses her resentment and her grief by keeping to herself, but she soon sees Goro's kindness. He teaches her pottery, languages, and other lessons that girls of her time are rarely, if ever, taught. Takiko grows to respect Goro, appreciating the efforts he makes to show his affection for her and his devotion to their family.
Shortly after Takiko's mother and Goro marry, they announce they are expecting a child. Takiko's mother gives birth to a baby boy, which doesn't at first sit well with Takiko, but she eventually comes around.
Then, a wealthy merchant visits the family's farm. Taking note of Takiko's beauty and talent, he suggests she go to the capital to serve as a lady-in-waiting to Princess Aoi at the Imperial Court. This vaulted position brings Takiko instant privilege within Japanese society.
One day, the Princess orders Takiko to go to the temple to pray. There, she meets Hideo, a Genji spy, samurai, and Princess Aoi's secret lover. Though she knows that a relationship with him is strictly forbidden, Takiko cannot help how she feels, and she falls in love with Hideo.
At the palace, Takiko's beauty and singing abilities endear her to Emperor Antoku, so Princess Aoi sends her to sing and provide moral support to him at court as he deals with the battle that is fast approaching the capital. Takiko becomes his dedicated servant, singing for him and ensuring he has the encouragement he needs to lead.
As troops descend on the city, Takiko and several members of the royal family go into exile to escape the greedy Genji. Just before they leave, they pack up the Imperial Regalia, a set of historical items crucial to crowning a new emperor; if the Genji do not have these items, they cannot replace Emperor Antoku.
Takiko and the royal family flee to an island manor since Genji forces cannot reach them by sea. A few months after their arrival, Takiko finds Hideo spying on the property. Blinded by her love for him, she agrees not to tell that she saw him spying and lets him go. Hideo sends her love letters, and during prayers at the local temple, she sees that he has set up a secret hiding place there. She keeps this news to herself as well.
Goro pays a visit and asks Takiko to come home; her mother is expecting another baby any day. Takiko, not wanting to leave Hideo, tells Goro that she needs to stay with the Emperor because he needs her music during this uncertain time.
Soon, Genji forces expand their power and capability until they can effectively traverse the sea. They attack the royal family's manor, setting it on fire. The Heike protecting the royal family try to defend the manor, but they are powerless in the face of the Genji's newfound abilities. Once the fighting dies down and the Genji retreat, the royal family moves onto a boat.
In the meantime, the Heike devise a plan to wrest control back from the Genji. The plan ultimately fails, leading to the Heike's capture. Rather than be humiliated in defeat, the Emperor and several other members of the royal family jump overboard to their deaths. Takiko, torn between jumping to certain death or staying and fighting for Hideo, waits too long to make a decision, and the Genji capture her.
Hideo helps Takiko escape, and she goes back to her mother and Goro. However, both her mother and brother are dead from a plague that swept through the countryside. In his grief, Goro sets fire to the family's home, and Takiko suffers burns to her face. She sets out to rebuild her childhood home, going to work in the fields. In no time, Takiko takes on the appearance of an old and haggard woman, worn down by a life of hard manual labor, her face scarred, her hands callused and unable to make music.
Two years go by, and Hideo arrives for a visit. However, the Takiko he encounters is not he Takiko he remembers. Her youth, her beauty, her energy—all gone. No longer in love with her, he leaves Takiko to her rural life. His departure opens her eyes to the fact that she needs to leave Goro and move on. She briefly goes to live with the Empress, but the Empress questions her, wondering if a return to the royal family is a life that Takiko wants. After some deliberation, Takiko realizes it isn't.
Takiko returns to the country and to Goro. She doesn't think anyone else will ever love her now that she has lost her beauty, so she vows to marry Goro and be his devoted wife. They wed and have a baby daughter.