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call it courage

31 may 2021

I was roaming one of the giant McKay's bookstores in Tennessee recently, and noticed that they had a section of Newbery winners. Surely I have read all of these, I prided myself, and then the first book I saw on the shelf was Call It Courage, not just a Runner-Up but purportedly the Medal winner from 1941. How could I never even have heard of Call It Courage?

I bought the book, a tiny paperback reprint from Scholastic, and once I started reading, Call It Courage seemed awfully familiar. I hadn't read it before, as it turned out, but its plot premise is almost identical to that of the 1948 Runner-Up Li Lun Lad of Courage by Carolyn Treffinger. Which means that Treffinger purloined Armstrong Sperry's idea, if it was Sperry's to start with. A boy in an Asian/Pacific-Islander culture that values the sea above all things is – scared of the sea, and must do something heroic to live down his cowardice.

Mind you, Mafatu in Call It Courage has a pretty damn good reason to fear the sea. When he was very small, his mother took him out in a boat and the two of them got walloped by a hurricane, spending the next while clinging to flotsam and being eyed by hungry sharks. The elders of his Polynesian community are sympathetic, but the other kids just think that Mafatu is a sissy. It is incumbent on the boy to man up and perform some seaworthy feat.

Mafatu collects his pet dog and his pet albatross and sets off in a canoe to find a new island and a new destiny. For a kid terrified of the sea, he does OK. He weathers a storm. He wrestles a shark. He wrestles an octopus. He finds an island, cooks breadfruit, escapes from some savages. He returns home vindicated.

Well, this is all very exciting. I am not sure what kids were supposed to get out of it. Despite lashings of local color, Call It Courage is basically one more entry in the genre where an unaccommodated kid masters unpopulated nature.

It is also another entry in the phenomenon where an elite white American writer appropriates an exotic setting to tell this story. Armstrong Sperry was the brother of the fellow who designed the Top-Sider shoe – could you get more quintessentially preppie? – and appears to have spent his literary career projecting American manliness into Polynesian settings.

Sperry, Armstrong. Call It Courage. 1940. New York: Scholastic, 1963.