Mofatu, whose name means “stout heart,” is 15 years old and the son of the chief of Hikueru, a real island in the South Pacific. His mother drowned when Mofatu was three (he survived the hurricane that capsized their canoe), and since then he has been afraid of the ocean. Taunted by his peers and feeling he is an embarrassment to his father, he decides to leave by canoe to test his courage, accompanied only by his dog and (sometimes) a pet albatross. He survives a huge storm on the water, landing on an uninhabited island that’s apparently used occasionally for ritual cannibalism, ultimately escaping from the “eaters of men” when they arrive on the island and returning to his home. He kills a shark, an octopus, and a wild pig. More interesting, to me at least, were the ways he fashioned tools and utensils, a canoe, and tapa cloth, the latter from the inner bark of a mulberry tree.
Author Armstrong Sperry’s observations from his trips in 1920-21 and 1924-25 to French Polynesia are evident in Call It Courage. For example:
While his breakfast roasted in the coals, the boy cleared the brush away from the base of the great tamanu. There was no wood better for canoe building than this. It was tough, durable, yet buoyant in the water. Mafatu could fell his tree by fire, and burn it out, too. Later he would grind an adze out of basalt for the finished work. The adze would take a long time, but he had made them often in Hikueru and he knew just how to go about it. The boy was beginning to realize that the hours he had spent fashioning utensils were to stand him now in good stead. Nets and knives and sharkline, implements and shell fishhooks—he knew how to make them all. How he hated those tasks in Hikueru! He was quick and clever with his hands, and now he was grateful for the skill which was his.
I liked this book and I think it would appeal to both boys and girls. (I’ve now completed Island of the Blue Dolphins - review to be posted later – and I much prefer Call It Courage). It may need to be read aloud to younger children (or they can listen to this audiobook), as the reading level measures out to 5th-8th grade. It’s relatively short (only 95 pages in my university’s 1941 hardbound reprint) with a lot of exciting action, yet there’s much interesting information about South Sea island life of a century ago, plus a valuable message about personal courage.
An autobiographical note (written in third person) published in Newbery Medal Books: 1922-1955 (Horn Book, 1955) concludes (page 198), “it is in this book that Armstrong Sperry has put not only what he saw and felt on the islands of the South Seas, but something of his own philosophy of living as well.” I would have to agree.
[A variation of this review appears on my blog, Bookin' It.]