In 2008, as part of my ninth grade literature program, I read Abeka’s Themes in Literature, a collection of short stories and poetry. There were several stories that delighted me; The Night the Bed Fell by James Thurber was hilarious, Appointment with Love by S. I. Kishor ended satisfactorily, and The Ugly Duckling by A. A. Milne was immensely witty. But above all these was the epic story of a young boy who grappled with a vicious tiger shark to save his beloved dog. I read that story over and over, my heart aching every time the dog was attacked and bursting with pride when the boy plunged his knife into the evil shark’s belly. Eventually I thought to look for the author’s name in the hopes that I might find more of his stories. It was only then that I discovered that the story of the boy and his dog was an excerpt from a book named Call it Courage.
An excerpt! There was more to this story? I was convinced I could not live another week without knowing how the boy came to be on his isolated island and how he finally escaped from it.
I ended up living for four years wondering how the story ended. During that time my fervor cooled; I no longer felt personally involved in the story, but I still wondered about it. And then, last weekend, I found my copy.
Because I had longed to find it for so many years, I think I enjoyed it more than if I had discovered it at random. But enjoy it I did, and a fine story it is.
Mafatu, son of the Great Chief Tavana Nui of Hikueru, was named for the quality his father hoped most that he would have. Courage. But while still a lad of three, Mafatu lost his courage; lost it to a violent storm at sea which nearly claimed his life and ended that of his mother. From that moment on, he was afraid of the sea.
Mafatu grew older. He became skilled at fashioning the nets and lines which other boys used to capture sharks at sea, but he never used them himself. For he was the Boy Who Was Afraid.
Finally, in an agony of self-examination Mafatu determines to gain his courage or be forever banished from his people. He loads his fish spear and a few coconuts into a canoe. Calling his dog Uri, he shoves out into the calm, glass-like ocean hoping to sail to a nearby island where he would be forced to practice manhood. But as he sails a storm erupts, battering and wailing at his little craft until it capsizes. He clings to its wreck for days under the burning sun, floating he knows not where. Then, as he drifts, he nears an island. He beats his way to it. But he no longer has his food, and as his weapons are lost, he has no means of procuring any. How will he ever survive?
This story is a thing of lyrical beauty. Not only the characters, but the setting comes alive under the skilled pen of Armstrong Sperry.
As might be expected, this book taught great lessons in courage and responsibility. One thing that the author didn’t emphasize but I noticed was that although Mafatu sets out on his quest seeking to acquire courage, his initial setting out demonstrated a rare form of courage that few of us possess – the courage to face our weaknesses and deliberately fight them.
Another part that I liked was that although Mafatu is disturbed by the ridicule of his peers, that is not the main reason that he seeks his courage. He seeks it that he may no longer cause shame to his father, that his father may be proud of him, and that he may stand as a man beside his father as they rule their village.
Besides these points is the epic battle which I have already mentioned, as well as a tussle with a wild boar. The comradeship between Mafatu and his dog Uri is truly sweet.
There is a continuous theme of paganism throughout the story. Part of Mafatu’s quest for courage is his need to overcome his fear of Moana, the terrible god of the sea who wishes to destroy him. Mafatu calls upon Maui, god of the fisherman to strengthen him and give him aid. Mafutu is very devout in his religion and prays to Maui with the same spontenaity with which we Christians would pray to God.
On one of his explorations Mafatu comes across a ‘Sacred Place’ where the eaters-of-men offer sacrifices to their evil god. Although somewhat daunted, Mafatu defies its sanctity and removes a spear from the altar.
I do not pretend that this overt paganism is either unimportant or benign. But, I believe that if handled properly it need not exclude the story from all readers. Parents can easily conduct a few conversations on the subject of paganism – why the worship of false gods is a perversion of man’s religious nature and how there is no other name under heaven by which man may be saved except that of Christ – and encourage children to exercise discernment in this area while they are reading the story. If paganism is explained in this manner, I see no reason why it should be considered any more defiling than lying or stealing would be in a story.
Conclusion. While the reading level could probably be considered ‘9-12’, the aforementioned cautions have caused me to recommend it only to more mature readers.
Review © 2012 Laura Verret