I’m just going to get this out of the way — Yes, this 1940 Newbery Award winner certainly has some representation issues. Yes, Call It Courage does play on all the noble-savage action-adventure boy serial tropes, such as those in the Tarzan serials. Yes, it portrays sexism, bullying, and submitting to peer pressure in a positive light. Yes, it does fall into a bit of a predictable storytelling mode where our protagonist magically conquers everything.
But this is still a great book. And a wonderful book when the era in which it was written is considered. Afterall, the expectations and standards in the world were quite different in 1940. I personally believe that the cultural context in which this was written is essential to appreciate the text.
Maftu, the son of the Great Chief Hikueru, is afraid of the sea. After getting caught in a hurricane with his mother and being the only survivor, this isn’t all that surprising. But his name means “Stout Heart”. And Stout Heart cannot get in a boat, fish, or do anything which is expected of the men on this Polynesian island. Once he reaches the age in which boys go off to the ocean to partake in the ritual where boys become men, Mufatu hears the boys making fun of him. No longer will he stand by and let the ocean scare him. He steals a canoe, takes his dog and his bird, and sets out in the ocean to face his fears and come back victorious.
As part of my quest to read all the Newbery Winners, I listened to the audiobook for Call It Courage. And I am so thankful I did! As the story begins Sperry identifies that this is a tale told around the fires to this day on the Polynesian- and it feels just like it! The bold and mythic storytelling tone, along with the Listening Library’s sound effects and music, made me feel like I was hearing this story told around the fire. Listening to Lou Diamond Phillip’s depiction is powerful, but also enlightening. I won’t lie, if I was reading this all the Polynesian words would have been nonsense to me. I really appreciate hearing the proper pronunciation.
The message of this story is simple: Find your own courage no matter what adversity you may find. Your fears look different compared to those around you, but courage is always the same. In a fashion similar to The Odyssey, Mufatu’s hair-raising adventures quickly pile one on top of the other. These adventures follow the structure of a traditional survival story. Despite the predictability of these events, I still found myself enraptured with Mufatu’s plight. Will he survive? Will he be able to return and show the Great Chief Hikueru the courage he has found?
In the end, Call It Courage is about facing your fears no matter the form they take. It could be the wildness of nature, the cruelty of your peers, the disappointment of your family, or any other thing. Most of the terrible stereotypes called out in this book are ones our society has now abandoned. If you can remember to let that go, you’ll be magically transported along with Mufatu on a seemingly impossible adventure and rise to victory. This book’s pages contain not a lesson in history, but a lesson in moral courage– A lesson so many of us still need today.
What do you think?
- Have you read Call It Courage? What do you think of it?
- Are there books with problematic content you still recommend to people? If so, what are they? If not, why don’t you?
- What is the last book you read which focused on facing your fears?
- Can you recommend other books set on the Polynesian islands?