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. It is the story of Mafatu, the Boy Who Was Afraid.
Call It Courage is a children's novel, a Newbery Medal winner and the most famous novel of Armstrong Sperry, an author and illustrator of mostly children's novels who had a fascination with the Polynesian culture and civilization. While it is set in the Polynesian islands pre-Western contact, the major attraction of this novel transcends the culture – accurate or otherwise – depicted, because it is a story which could be told, and has been told, in many other lands and cultures: the story of someone overcoming fear.
Mafatu, the Boy Who Was Afraid, fears the sea; this is a terrible and pathetic weakness for someone who lives on a low sea atoll such as Hikueru, an island in the midst of the Pacific whose inhabitants draw nearly all their livelihood from the sea. By modern standards, his fear of the sea is all too understandable, caused by a traumatic event at sea when he was only three years old – an event told with stark and powerful clarity early in the book.
But his people cannot understand his fear, and while they do not actually cast him out, he is regarded with scorn, or – sometimes worse – pity, and while the other young men of his age are preparing for their transition to manhood by fishing and hunting other sea creatures, Mafatu is left behind to provide whatever support he can at tasks normally left to women – making cloth, fishing line and hooks, and so on.
When he overhears the one boy he thought was his friend making fun of his fear, Mafatu is finally galvanized to action; he realizes that he will never be accepted on his home, and never be a source of pride to his father or, in truth, himself, unless and until he can conquer that fear.
So in the dead of night he takes an outrigger canoe, supplies it for a long journey, and quickly, before he can change his mind, sets a course outward to distant islands, hoping to master his fear, prove his courage, and be able to return to his home with honor.
Call It Courage is powerfully written, often directly from Mafatu's point of view, and many times we feel the crushing weight of his fear or, later, the rising hope and elation as one by one Mafatu overcomes his obstacles and begins to become the man he hoped to be. I have read the book many times, both for myself and for my children, and I never fail to be affected by the emotions experienced by Mafatu.
Much of the imagery of the novel is touched with the fantastic, with the mythology of Polynesia and specifically contrasting the god of the sea, Moana, and the god of fishermen, Maui; the one represents Mafatu's fear and is seen as an adversary, while Maui is the patron and supporter of Mafatu's quest. Mafatu believes firmly in these (and presumably other) beings' influence on his life, and often addresses Moana as a personal enemy.
It's interesting to note that while Maui is in fact a hero-god of Polynesian myth, "Moana" is in fact a word for the ocean but not, as far as I can tell, an actual sea god in the real mythology.
It should come as little surprise – given that I like the book very, very much – that Mafatu is successful in his quest. Not only does he overcome fear of the ocean, but also he demonstrates his ability to survive alone – constructing a new canoe for his return, hunting all the dangerous animals known to his people (some deliberately, some otherwise), and also daring even superstitious fear to achieve some practical and desperately important goal.
Call It Courage is one of the best children's books I have read, and holds up well even now that I'm an adult. Perhaps it poorly depicts the actual cultures involved (I'm fairly sure the "Eaters-of-Men" were greatly exaggerated in their behavior, but I could be wrong),but as a story of a young boy seeking to overcome his greatest enemy – his own fear – it stands almost alone in its power and, ultimately, joy in depicting this very primal, and very human, quest.