The Master Puppeteer is a historical novel set in eighteenth-century Japan. Author Katherine Paterson skillfully intertwined many elements of Japanese feudal society of this era, showing how tightly connected the social, economic, and cultural characteristics were. By using Jiro, a boy from a poor family, as the central character, Paterson shows the limited options that poor people had in a rigidly structured society. She also shows how the arts—in this case, puppet theater—functioned as skilled trades. Jiro represents the children who passed through apprenticeship to learn their trade, working from a young age rather than attending school.
The novel also shows the rising dissatisfaction that many sectors felt with the existing, highly unequal structures. In particular, she addresses the vast disparity in income and property between the rich and the poor. During the food shortages, hungry people sometimes erupted in violence. A growing faction of discontented people challenged the rich through robbery, often maintaining traditional social roles while keeping their identities as bandits secret. Through the puppet theater, Paterson connects the world of the arts, with its strict training regimen, and the outlaw counterculture. The reader learns that the highly skilled, apparently blind puppeteer Okada is actually the notorious bandit leader Saburo.