With Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry, the 1941 Newbery winner (number 20), we join Mafatu, a boy afraid of the sea, as he leaves his island in a moment of rash courage and survives a wild storm. He lands on a wild island where he must survive and escape being made a human sacrifice on the sacred alter of the cannibals who use the island for that purpose.
What I liked. As a retold Polynesian myth, I loved spotting the traditional hero-cycle parts of the book. The boy leaves his world, almost doesn’t make it into the new world, faces a series of challenges, gains skills and triumphs, before the climactic final conflict and return to his own world with his treasures.
What was interesting. I was fascinated that again, like last week’s Daniel Boone, we have in the middle of WWII, a Newbery with Native peoples as enemies—this one with cannibal-human-sacrificing-idol-worshiping-ones no less. When Mafatu is crouching, watching those scary men and their giant carved black stone faces, it seems very Indiana Jones, like the Nazis should be there as well trying to gain some sort of weird occult power.
What were some limitations. Well the paired-down nature of this survivor story probably contributed to its being a bit exoticized. It also lacked relationships. The genre of a Robinson Crusoe/Survivor story can be a difficult one in which to have relationship growth, but relationship growth is one of the things that May B by Caroline Starr Rose does so well. Even though May is alone for most of the book, we grow to understand her family as she thinks back to the years that led to her time on the prairie. I love that book.
Why I think it’s a Newbery. Call it Courage is a solid hero/coming of age story in an exotic setting which is an early Newbery favorite.
Similarity to other Newbery winners. The seafarers journey is a theme shared by some of the first Newberies: Dr. Dolittle and Dark Frigate. The misunderstood boy who comes into his own is a bit like Dobry. But it probably is most like some of the short myths in Tales from the Silver Lands or Shen of the Sea, but I liked Call it Courage a lot more than those two.
What it teaches me as a writer. Since the story was such a straightforward set of new obstacles for Mafatu to face, it was a really great book to think about the hero’s journey. Even though I had a sense of what was going to come, it was still satisfying to read as Mafatu kills the boar, and then the shark, and then the octopus, saves his dog, builds a ship, and conquers his fear of the sea. It’s a good reminder to build in those escalating challenges into my own book.
Have you read Call it Courage? What are your favorite survivor or desert island books?
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