1941: Call It Courage (Killing Things, that is)

VERDICT: Meh, more towards trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5

The 1941 Newbery Medal Winner, Call It Courage (though I prefer the British title, The Boy Who Was Afraid), is the story of a young Pacific Islander named Mafatu, meaning Stout Heart. After he and his mother are caught in a storm and she drowns, Mafatu develops a phobia of the water. Since manhood is tied to feats possible only in the water – spearing certain fish, etc. – Mafatu is called a coward when his fear prevents him from participating.

To prove his worth, Mafatu steals a canoe and, with his trusty dog Uri and his albatross Kivi, heads out to sea. He is caught in a storm and wrecked on an island. Through his ingenuity and craftsmanship, he fashions all the items he needs to survive, including weapons, shelter, and a new canoe. Along the way, Mafatu kills several large animals (wild boar, hammerhead shark, octopus), thus proving his courage by facing some of the things he feared most. When men-who-eat-people return to their sacred island, Mafatu flees, eventually ending up at home. His father welcomes him heartily, especially when he see the trophies of Mafatu’s kills, realizing that Mafatu has truly become Stout Heart.

It’s not a bad book. It just doesn’t stand out as particularly good, either. I have no major complaints – it’s short, language use is fine, if a bit simplistic, and there is a plot. The animal sidekicks were even rather endearing. None of this attributes were more than average, however. Also, I got sick of killing as the solution to fear. The hammerhead, and to some degree the octopus, were in the water as well as symbols of the sea. They forced Mafatu to both literally and figuratively confront his fear. To me, Call It Courage is very much a children’s book. Although the plot is “coming-of-age”, it is realized in a simplistic, uncomplicated fashion, where the focus is on adventure as much as personal growth. I would suggest it for middle to late elementary school children who enjoy adventures, but adults could probably skip it.


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