Monday, December 10, 2007

Call It Courage

Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry, is a short book, and a good one to read in Michigan in the winter. It has gorgeous descriptions of Polynesian islands, coral reefs, and the experience of being in an outrigger canoe in the middle of the Pacific, and all of this is a very nice change from freezing rain, slush, and grey days.

It's a quiet story, though. There is some action in it - the 15 year old hero, Mafatu, battles a shark, an octopus (do big octopi really attack people?), a wild boar, and barely escapes from the savage black "eaters-of-men". I winced a little every time Sperry notes that the neighboring cannibals were black (not Polynesian like Mafatu?), but this was the only bit that really dated the story. Like Island of the Blue Dolphins, which shares many similarities with Call It Courage, this is basically the story of a boy and his dog and his bird, and of his battles with the the sea and with his own fear, and it is rather timeless. And I liked that aspect of the story; I loved how the first paragraph is echoed at the end of the book:
It happened many years ago, before the traders and missionaries first came into the South Seas, while the Polynesians were still great in numbers and fierce of heart. But even today the people of Hikueru sing this story in their chants and tell it over the evening fires (p. 7, p. 95).
The woodcuts (I think they're woodcuts, anyway, but maybe they're etchings or something) were absolutely beautiful, and I was surprised to see that Sperry also did these illustrations. They really complement the book, and add a lot to its charm. But I was taken aback by the following picture, because Sperry states several times that the shark that Mafatu battles is a hammerhead, and even my six year old knows (from Animal Planet and the Toledo Zoo aquarium) that this is not a hammerhead.

Warning: some mild spoilers below the picture.

Unlike Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins, Mafatu chooses his isolation, and returns triumphantly to his family. So the things that disturbed me in O'Dell's story just weren't here, and many of the things that I liked in Island of the Blue Dolphins were also here in Call It Courage: beautiful descriptions of the land (and sea), nearly ethnographic descriptions of the resourceful way native peoples used plants and animals, a good dog companion, and a character with strength of mind and (duh, given the title) courage.

Sperry said something interesting in his Newbery acceptance speech in 1941, which I think makes a statement about the best Newbery winners in general:
"CALL IT COURAGE meant a great deal to me in the writing but I had no idea that the response to the book would be so wide among children. I had feared that the concept of spiritual courage might be too adult for the age group such a book would reach, and that young people would find it less thrilling than the physical courage which battles pirates unconcerned or outstares the crouching lion. But it seems I was wrong ... which only serves to prove that children have imagination enough to grasp any idea which you present to them with honesty and without patronage."


Sandy D. said...

I did another look at the various covers for this book at my personal blog, here.

pussreboots said...

Excellent review. Now I want to read the book! I was especially interested in your comparisons to Island of the Blue Dolphins since I just reread and reviewed the book.

Shelley said...

I read this one a couple of years ago and loved it. Thanks for the quote form the author--so true! As far as the picture, I guess maybe a hammerhead wouldn't have flowed with the other lines in the drawing--poetic license??

Anonymous said...

I remember my grade school (4th or 5th grade?) teacher reading this book to us in the days before televison became popular. It was wildly exciting and we listened to every thrilling word. As I approach my 70th birthday, I hope to read this book to my grandchildren.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the shark discrepancy....I currently have two of these books, one hard cover and one softcover. The hard cover book has the picture referred to here and the text says, "hammerhead." The soft cover book has a different picture and the text says, "tiger shark."