Friday, April 22, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry (1941)

I believe that I read Call It Courage, Armstrong Sperry's novel that took the 1941 Newbery Medal, when I was a child. However, I remembered almost nothing about it, and so when I went to read the book again for this review, I came at it with, at least for the most part, fresh eyes.

What I found within the pages was not, I don't believe, what Sperry intended to put there. In his acceptance speech for the Newbery (in and around the cringeworthy exoticism of the Polynesian Other), Sperry spoke about "that courage which, in one form or another, I have tried to communicate to the readers of my books." As far as I can tell, Sperry intended his tale to be interpreted straightforwardly: a boy is afraid, courageously confronts his fears, and through the process of overcoming them, becomes a man.

And yet that's not the way that Call It Courage comes across to me at all. It strikes me as a picture of a rigid, dysfunctional society, one that is largely unwilling to accept differences. Our hero, Mafatu, is a Polynesian boy with a deep fear of the sea. Really, he's probably a kid with PTSD -- when he was three years old, he was caught in a hurricane while out in a canoe with his mother. The storm destroyed the canoe, and Mafatu held onto his mother's neck for an entire night, surrounded by sharks and dark water, before the waves threw the pair of them up onto a nearby reef, whereupon Mafatu's mother promptly died. After all that, it strikes me as perfectly reasonable for Mafatu to be frightened of the ocean!

However, his people don't see it that way. Mafatu's father, the chief, treats his son with disappointed indifference. His peers openly mock and scorn him. Mafatu is still a perfectly useful member of society -- he becomes a skilled spear-maker and net-weaver -- but in a nifty piece of sexism, this is discounted as "woman's work." Eventually, the social pressure becomes so intense that Mafatu can no longer abide it; he takes a canoe and sails away with a half-formed plan to "win his way to a distant island." (Spoilers follow!)

What actually happens is that Mafatu runs into another storm, and is then wrecked on a quasi-deserted island. Here, he makes himself a home and another canoe, gets really good at killing things (a shark, a wild boar, a giant octopus), and, I suppose, conquers his fears. However, the sense of self-improvement seems secondary to me; Mafatu states over and over that what he really wants is the respect of his peers, and even more to the point, his father's love.

None of the larger issues that seem to me like they ought to be visible from space -- why nearly kill yourself for the love of someone who demonstrates no love for you? why is there no place within a society to work through one's problems, or to make a life for oneself that isn't within an extraordinarily narrow range of the acceptable? -- are ever addressed. No, Mafatu is able to wrench himself into being exactly what other people want out of him, which is presented to us as a triumphant victory.

My deep complaints about Call It Courage shouldn't be construed as a condemnation of actual Polynesian culture. Indeed, although Sperry actually spent a year in French Polynesia, I have a lot of questions about how well he actually understood the place on anything but a superficial level. I'm not a Polynesian studies expert in any way, shape, or form, but as far as I understand it, the actual attitude towards things like gender roles would have been much different than the way in which Sperry presents it. Frankly, the whole novel feels more like a Pacific-ized version of a snobby prep school than anything else.

Also, I haven't even mentioned the "eaters-of-men," the cannibals who threaten Mafatu (mostly through his utterly inexplicable decision not to just sail away in his fully prepared and stocked canoe when he realizes they're on the island, and instead try to sneak a peek at their ritual in progress). Suffice it to say that the "cannibal" parts of the book weren't what you'd call respectfully handled.

I should try to be fair here. The "island adventure" story dates back at least to Robinson Crusoe (1719), but most of the books in this vein haven't aged all that well; they tend to look too colonialist and imperial for a modern reader to enjoy them. Sperry's defenders, such as critic Joan McGrath, caution that "it is all too easy to lose the historical perspective that would credit him with enlightenment and objectivity, given [his books'] date of publication." I've made similar arguments myself on behalf of Laura Adams Armer and Hendrik van Loon. However, I'm not entirely convinced in Sperry's case, although maybe it's just that all of the attitudes espoused in Call It Courage rub me the wrong way, and so I'm unable to be entirely objective.

I don't know what would win the 1941 Newbery if we were to re-award it today. Four Honor books were named, the best-known of which is The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (which has its own issues around race and culture). Call It Courage might still take the award -- and it's certainly easier to read than some of the other early Newbery winners that I've read -- but it's a book that really doesn't appeal to me.


  1. Hold it! I want to go back to the part where making spears was women's work. If women make them, does that mean they can keep a few around for their own use? Better not be home late for dinner dude!

  2. This certainly has been one of the less enjoyable Newberys I have read. I was struck by the the suggestion that Mafatu's fear of the sea might have been caused by his trauma as a 3 year old. Might!!!

    To me this story was entiely about a narrow macho ideal of what it took to be a man in Polynesian society, at least in the author's oppinion anyhow. The Long Winter is the only 1941 honor book I have read so far and whilst it may have problems it is at least an enjoyable read.

    Having said all this Call It Courage is not the worst Newbery I have read so far, we are yet to reach that decade.

  3. As ashamed as I am to say it, I actually enjoyed this one. Sure, the Otherness Exoticism makes for an uncomfortable read for the modern reader, but I found Mafatu's adventures to be somewhat compelling. There was a hollowness to the book, but compared to Waterless Mountain or Daniel Boone, it's a work of art.