Book Review: Call It Courage

Rating: ★★★★☆

Mafatu, the ten-year-old son of a Polynesian chieftan, has always feared the sea because in his toddlerhood he and his mother were swept away by a storm in which his mother lost her life.  As he approaches the edge of manhood, his fear prevents him from winning a place in his community.  Realizing their indifference to him, he sets out to sea alone in his canoe, taking only his dog and a few tools.  That night he is caught in a storm, in which he loses his paddle and all his tools, and he washes up on an island where cannibals are known to live.  He builds a shelter and canoe and chooses to survive; while living there he kills an octopus, a boar, and a shark, and faces the human terror of ritualistic cannibals, barely escaping with his life.  At the end of his journey he returns to his village having proved himself a man.

The story is set in a mythical Polynesia, but is written in a European voice: at one point the author describes a canoe caught in a current “like a millrace,” a term which is decidedly foreign to this island culture.  The great weakness of this book is that the tribal societies which provide a backdrop for the story are caricatured:  The tribal fishermen represent noble savages, living so close to nature that they become “ill at ease, charged… with an almost animal awareness of impending storm” (3).  Conversely, the cannibal tribe represent a class of wordless, brutal primitives — dancing with oiled bodies, beating drums around fires and stone idols, wailing, and shouting with guttural voices.  Mafatu appeals throughout the story to Maui, “god of the Fishermen,” and repeatedly challenges his nemesis Moana, the Sea God.  Sperry’s Maui, however, hardly resembles the Polynesian trickster named Maui, and the Moana of the story is only a personification of the sea (In some of the languages “moana” does mean sea or ocean.)

No one having read this book should believe they have learned anything about the real Polynesia — it is no more a story about Polynesia than Little Red Riding Hood is about the European forest. Notwithstanding this, if a reader can accept that Call it Courage is a lesson not in history but in moral courage, they may benefit from the moral example this hero represents.  Although Mafatu is limited by his youth and inexperience, he faces great dangers and survives, facing down one fear after another.  By making critical choices under pressure, and by refusing to succumb to the elemental, animal, spiritual and human forces arrayed against him, he finally wins his victory.  This coming of age is an accomplishment any young boy can aspire to.

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Publication Information: Sperry, Armstrong. Call It Courage. . 1940. ISBN: 0020452705.
Categories: 4 Stars, Age 08-12, Book Tree,, Honey For a Child's Heart, NEH Summertime Favorites, Newbery Medal
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Posted on June 26, 2009

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