Sunday, May 24, 2015

Reading Through History: Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry (1940)

In four chapters illustrated with blue and white ink drawings, this novella relates a Polynesian legend wherein a boy known for being afraid proves himself capable of taking on the elements on his own. Mafatu lost his mother to the sea as a young boy, and ever since, he has feared the wrath of the god Moana, assuming it is just a matter of time before the water comes for Mafatu as well. Frustrated by all that he sees others in his village accomplish, Mafatu decides to run away and prove his courage by facing his fears and hoping the god Maui will see him through.

The appeal of this book is mostly lost on me. Ever since I was forced to read The Cay in sixth grade, I have had a disdain for shipwreck books, and having just read The Captive, I wasn't really ready for another one. In fact, Mafatu's experiences in this book were so similar to what happens to Julian in The Captive that I kept forgetting which details belonged to which story. The writing is concise and straightforward, but I had trouble empathizing with Mafatu, and even in the most suspenseful moments of the story, I was more eager to stop reading than I was to find out what would happen next. It felt like it took me longer to get through this book than it typically takes for me to read 300 pages. 

What I do like about this book, despite the problems I had connecting with it, is the lesson. Mafatu is afraid because of something terrible that happened to him, and he sees himself as a coward. Others in his village ascribe this attribute to him as well, but their opinions seem to matter only because Mafatu is so down on himself. It is inspiring to read a story in which a character does hard things for the sake of proving to himself he can do them. Each time Mafatu has a victory - handcrafting his own knife, killing a hammerhead shark, fighting an octopus, building a seaworthy boat - the reader has the opportunity to reflect on his own obstacles and consider whether they are as insurmountable as they seem. 

Though it's not my favorite, I think there are plenty of kids who would love this book. It has some things in common with some of the more exciting Calvin Coconut books (Man Trip, Hero of Hawaii), and with Gary Paulsen's wilderness survival stories, which are popular, and it includes lots of details about building shelters and boats, making tools, starting fires, and hiding from enemies. Suggest it to adventure lovers in grades 4 to 7. 

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