I’ve given up hope of making good on my goal/bet to read ten consecutive Newbery winning books this year. Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry, brings my grand total to exactly three. The 1941 winner is a familiar title from my childhood, back when I was very much into survival books of the My Side of the Mountain, Julie of the Wolves, and Island of the Blue Dolphins variety. It’s funny how my thoughts on the book have changed since my ten year old self last read it.
Written in the style of a legend, Call It Courage is a coming-of-age story about a Polynesian boy named Mafatu who is afraid of the ocean. Because he and everyone in the village is dependent on the sea, Mafatu gets a lot of grief for his fear. (Although to his defense, as a toddler he almost drown during a massive storm, while his mother, who saved his life, died.) Nevertheless, Mafatu is a source of embarrassment to his father, the chief, and a disgrace to his namesake, Stout Heart. So one day, fed up by the taunts of the other boys his age, Mafatu decides to conquer his fear of the ocean by sailing into the ocean. His plan: to set off for a distant island and live there among strangers until he has proven his bravery, and then return home in glory. Instead, he gets shipwrecked on a cannibalistic island (the cannibals visit periodically) with no food, shelter, weapons, or means of escape.
As a kid, I enjoyed the “training montage” of the hero’s journey: Mafatu roasting bananas and breadfruit in the fire he painstakingly started, Mafatu twining bits of bamboo together to make a fish trap, Mafatu finding the perfect whalebone to sharpen into a knife. Sperry, who visited many of the Pacific islands, has a natural knack for writing scenery, and really brings the tropical island to life.
As an adult, however, I noticed the formulaic quality of Mafatu’s story. Every time he has to face a challenge, he psyches himself up by remembering how the villagers used to taunt him, and how he’ll prove them wrong. Then there’s the simplistic notion of what it means to have courage, which doesn’t evolve as the story progresses. When Mafatu first sets out, he thinks:
Suddenly a fierce resentment stormed through him. He knew in that instant what he must do: he must prove his courage to himself, and to the others, or he could no longer live in their midst. He must face Moana, the Sea God–face him and conquer him. He must.
And while there’s a nice moment in the middle of the book when Mafatu realizes that his fear for his faithful dog gave him the bravery to tackle something he would never have had the courage to do on his own, we still get this passage towards the end:
Do you hear me, Moana? I am not afraid of you! Destroy me–but I laugh at you. Do you hear? I laugh!
While slogans like “face your fears like a man” and “courage is the absence of fear” were probably standard fare for the 194os (you could say they’re still far too prevalent today), I did wonder what Sperry thought of his book’s message. He had this to say upon receiving the Newbery medal:
I had been afraid that perhaps in Call It Courage, the concept of spiritual courage might be too adult for children, but the reception of this book has reaffirmed a belief I have long held: that children have imagination enough to grasp any idea, and respond to it, if it is put to them honestly and without a patronizing pat on the head.