Monday, September 5, 2011

Call It Courage

by Armstrong Sperry

This Newbery winner tells of the trials of Mafatu, a fifteen-year-old Polynesian boy, the son of a chief.  Due to a tragedy that took his mother when he was a baby, Mafatu has a great distrust of the sea, so one day he takes a small boat and, accompanied by his dog, forces himself to face his fears.  After a storm, he washes up on an island of cannibals.  While building a shelter and another boat, he also faces predators and then the return of the cannibals.

This slim story is, unfortunately, rather simplistic, and is dramatic only in the way that, say, old Tarzan serials are.  First, the book validates the importance of conformity to existing social values; although Mafatu has made himself useful in the making of spears and nets, this is dismissed by his peers (and the tone of the narration) as “women’s work.”  Also, disappointingly, Mafatu’s victories are not a result of his being particularly clever or adept; bravery and brute force are the only attributes extolled here.  He kills a boar, a shark, and most ludicrously, a giant octopus capable of grabbing him by the waist, not through clever stratagems, but simply by standing his ground and stabbing them.  Admirable, perhaps, but not exactly thrilling plots.  Certainly, Sperry means well, and he’s good at describing this Adventure Story For Eager Lads, but I question the book’s underlying message, and its one-note hero, as a model for young minds. 

two stars