Monday, January 20, 2014

Call It Courage

In 1941, Armstrong Sperry won a Newbery medal for excellence in children's literature.   Call It Courage is the story of physical and spiritual survival.  10 year-old Mafatu fears the sea, something that brings shame to him and to his father, the leader of a Polynesian island.   The sea gods claimed Mafatu's mother years earlier, and as result, he refuses to man up and fish with the other boys his age.  Instead, he stays ashore and weaves nets with the women.  

Mafatu eventually decides he must face his fear and sets off for the adventure of his life, taking a small canoe out onto the unpredictable waters.  He is accompanied by his dog, Uri, and Kivi, an injured albatross.  What Mafatu encounters, fights and overcomes would put contestants on "Survivor" to shame.  

I don't know why I picked this book up.  My fourth grade teacher read it to us which I suspect she did in a sort of underground maneuver since no other teacher grades 1-8 ever read to us.  I wonder what subject she stole minutes from each day to share this wonderful story.  So many of us chocked back sobs when she read the closing lines.  We sided with Mafatu.  We wanted him to return to the island a hero - to show everyone who laughed at him that he was courageous,  but the ambivalent ending was far too hazy for us.  Reading it on my own last weekend left me with the same sense.  Did Mafatu win?  Try as I might, I could find no clues within the text to lead me to a definite answer as to what the final paragraphs meant. 

As 9 year olds, were we really equipped to handle the ending, I wonder?  We didn't talk about the story.  It was enough that our teacher sneak-read it to us.  Heaven forbid that we should actually discuss anything.  

Call It Courage is poetic rather than prosaic.    There is little dialogue.  How can there be when it's just a boy, a dog and an albatross?  The more I think about it, the more the book resembles The Life of Pi in tone, theme, and style.  If you liked that book, take an hour and read this one.

Book group news?  No one (except for me) will be joining the Brady Udall fan club any time soon.  Sigh. Despite the venom, we had a lengthy discussion.  We're moving on to Tom Maltman's Little Wolves...another arty, moody piece.  We'll see how that goes.  In general, as long as there is chocolate, Cheetos, and wine to go along with the discussion, we're all happy.