Call It Courage is the perfect adventure story. Armstrong Sperry's tale of a 15-year-old island boy reaching manhood "many years ago, before the traders and missionaries first came into the South Seas" is poetic, fast-paced, and unencumbered by any irrelevant detail or philosophizing.
In the South Pacific island culture Sperry describes, bravery is honored above all else. So much so, that the Great Chief of Hikueru names his son Mafatu—Stout Heart. The only problem is that Mafatu is a coward, stricken since his third year by a deep fear of the sea after watching his mother die victim to a hurricane on the open water.
Since then, the boy has faced the jeers and scorn of everyone on the island, including his father who treats Mafatu to constant and seemingly unbreakable silence. One day, Mafatu gets tired of it, and puts to sea, determined to prove himself by conquering the sea and his own timid heart.
The tale is filled with storms, shark attacks, deserted island survival, a fight with a giant wild boar, and the ominous threat of cannibals. It would have been easy for Sperry to make this all about self-discovery, and on some level Call It Courage is about self-discovery, but it's far more than that: a metaphor for the difficult yet exhilarating transition from boyhood to manhood.
When Mafatu returns to his people, he does so in triumph, but not in unmitigated pride. He is not only strengthened by his many adventures, he's refined by them and matured, so that he understands bravery is not simply the absence of fear, but the pursuit of right action despite one's fear.
Sperry's poetic, heroic language is augmented by his own illustrations, which are quite beautiful. Readers are submerged into a world that once was but is easy to imagine, a world filled alike with danger, terror, and wonder. There are repeated references to the gods of the old Polynesians, but they're not presented as absolute truth; rather, they lend the story authenticity.
Few adventure stories provide what they advertise. Either there isn't enough action, or there isn't any real point to it all, both of which make for dull reading. Call It Courage falls into neither trap, offering a thoroughly exciting story alongside an unobtrusive reflection on the nature of manhood. This book is an outstanding masterpiece of its genre, for children or adults.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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