When it comes to YA literature, I generally jump into reading them more out of necessity than preference. In this case, we needed to read a Newbery Medal book, as well as a book related to water. Call it Courage was a perfect fit. I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it, but I think the message was something that resonated so perfectly to my state of being that this piece of Historical Fiction found its way into my heart.
No human being lives without fear, even the most courageous of individuals are afraid of something. What separates the fearful from the brave isn’t the presence and absence of fear, but in their attitude towards fear.
“The boy learned to turn these jibes aside, but his father’s silence shamed him. He tried with all his might to overcome his terror of the sea. Sometimes, steeling himself against it, he went with Tavana Nui and his stepbrothers out beyond the reef to fish. Out there, where the glassy swells of the ocean lifted and dropped the small canoe, pictures crowded into the boy’s mind, setting his scalp atingle…and so overcome would he be at the remembrance of that time that he would drop his spear overboard, or let the line go slack at the wrong moment and lose the fish.”
Mafatu—Stout Heart—contrary to his name is a coward, living a life fearful of the big blue sea. Traumatized by the death of his mother and his almost drowning, Mafatu never saw the sea as his friend. He believed the sea god—Moana—would soon claim him when he goes near the water. And so, he settled himself on a life of making spears and nets—a woman’s work in the island of Hikueru. Coupling with his fear of the sea was the shame he carried for not living up to his name and to his father, Tavana Nui, the Great Chief of Hikueru.
Facing His Fear
To get over one’s fear, psychology tells us we must simply desensitize ourselves—gradually expose ourselves to what we are afraid of. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s the only way.
“He knew in that instant what he must do: he must prove his courage to himself, and to the others, or he could no longer live in their midst. He must face Moana—the Sea God—face him and conquer him. He must.”
Sperry takes us to Mafatu’s journey of facing his fear—the great sea. The sea is unpredictable and a small canoe can easily be turned over by the vast blue sea. Mafatu’s re-entry to the sea was no smoother than when he was with his mother. It took him, but it didn’t kill him.
Facing one’s fear is a journey of self-discovery. It paints for us the possibility that lives within us. Mafatu blindly takes on Moana and discovers the courage that lies in his heart. In the process of facing his fear and proving to himself that he was no coward, Mafatu discovers the bigger picture of his journey from cowardice to courage. He discovers that in the state of cowardice he learned the skills that would serve him as he survived on his own in an island.
His journey home was no easier, but our protagonist leaves the deserted island with a self- knowledge only experience can teach. In surviving in an island alone and having faced the sea and its creatures, Mafatu’s heart grows. He now faces the sea with open eyes.
“Moana, you Sea God! He shouted violently. You! You destroyed my mother. Always you have tried to destroy me. Fear of you has haunted my sleep. Fear of you turned my people against me. But now—he choked; his hands gripped his throat to stop its hot burning—now I no longer fear you, Sea!”
In this tale, however, the greater question was whether or not Mafatu could live up to his name. And only one person could reassure Mafatu and we read with bated breath as he makes it home.
“Here is my son come home from the sea. Mafatu, Stout Heart. A brave name for a brave boy.”
It’s a simple story, nothing extraordinary to a regular reader, but it speaks of human truth. To fear is human, but it is also human to find courage. We often think people are born fearless, but that is not so. The fearless ones are those who see fear and face it. The fearless ones are those who are willing to discover themselves. If anything, I think that is the heart of the story. Courage, after all, is never the absence of fear, but the ability to go beyond that fear.
The Author: Armstrong Sperry
(November 7, 1897–April 26, 1976) was an American writer and illustrator of children’s literature. His books include historical fiction and biography, often set on sailing ships, and stories of boys from Polynesia, Asia and indigenous American cultures. He is best known for his 1941 Newbery Medal-winning book Call It Courage. (source wikipedia)
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