Call It Courage
Armstrong Sperry (Juvenile Fiction)
It happened many years ago, before the traders and missionaries first came into the South Seas, while the Polynesians were still great in numbers and fierce of heart. But even today the people of Hikueru sing the story in their chants and tell it over the evening fires. It is the story of Mafatu, the Boy Who Was Afraid.
Fifteen-year-old Mafatu was afraid of the sea. He’s had this fear for as long as he could remember. His father, Tavana Nui, the Great Chief of Hikeuru, was ashamed of him for his people were great seafarers who worshipped courage. There was no room—no tolerance—for cowardice. It’s no wonder that Mafatu felt alone and out of place. Angry and ashamed, Mafatu sets off one night in a canoe with his dog, Uri, and his albatross, Kivi, as his only companions. His father had christened him “Stout Heart” upon his birth and Mafatu was determined to earn that name…or perish trying.
Armstrong Sperry’s Call It Courage was the recipient of the Newbery Medal in 1941. Although there are mentions of Maui (God of the Fishermen) and Moana (the Sea God) and even Maui’s famed fishhook, Disney fans shouldn’t confuse this book with the movie about a spunky Polynesian princess. Rather, it is more along the lines of Island of the Blue Dolphins (1961 Newbery Medal recipient) by Scott O’Dell, but told from a boy’s perspective. If you enjoyed O’Dell’s book, you’ll most likely enjoy Sperry’s as well.
Sperry gives readers the story of a boy who not only has to deal with his own fears and shortcomings, but has to do so under the weight of being the island chief’s son. To be a coward amongst people who worship heroism is one thing, but add the burden of being the island’s heir apparent and you’ve got quite a heavy load. As the ridicule—especially from one who was seemingly a friend—intensifies, we see Mafatu being crushed under its unforgiving and unrelenting weight day after day until he sees no other alternative but to flee his homeland in search of courage and worth.
Call It Courage is fast-paced, tense, and suspenseful due to its numerous forms of conflict: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Fate/Supernatural, and Man vs. Self. Like in Island of the Blue Dolphins, we have a smart protagonist who relies heavily on wit and skill to survive. The mundane tasks that Mafatu was assigned while on Hikueru are quickly utilized and performed with speed and skill. Rushes or lapses in judgement could mean death so we see Mafatu being patient, deliberate, calculating, and thoughtful in all of his decision making. Books (especially for younger readers) could use more characters like this.
Sperry delivers a powerful message in a very short book (mine was only 92 pages). He shows us a boy who despite his insecurity, frailty, and vulnerability, is capable of doing rather extraordinary things. Whether you call it courage, impulse, or instinct, Mafatu discovers his inner strength which allows him to begin believing in himself. Famed American pianist Liberace once said, “Nobody will believe in you unless you believe in yourself.” Mafatu, along with a yellow dog and a gimpy albatross, found the courage to believe in himself and I would call that pretty remarkable.
*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com
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