Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cup of Courage

Shaking with nervousness, I entered Starbucks and scanned the room for her. She sat by a side table, looking anxious too. I gathered my strength and joined her. For the first time, I directly confronted her about issues that had been bothering me and we communicated. It took a great deal of courage on both our parts to be honest and share our feelings, but without it, our friendship could never grow. For us, courage was not the absence of fear; it was taking action despite the fear. Both Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry, winner of the 1941 Newbery Medal, and The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds, winner of the 1942 Newbery Medal, share this important message about facing our fears.


The story of Mafatu, the Boy Who Was Afraid, is retold in Call it Courage. Mafatu develops an intense fear of the sea after his mother was killed by a tropical storm. This fear isolates him in the village. In order to prove himself, he forces himself to take to the sea with the other boys. However, he is marooned on a deserted island and must fend for himself. (Fortunately, in almost Disneyesque style, he is accompanied by Kivi, a crippled albatross, and Uri, his faithful dog.) Once alone, he faces sharks, wild boars, and cannibals with determination and pluck. It is only when he has to confront his fears that he learns he has the strength within to overcome them. Through his experiences, he learns to live up to his name, Mafatu, which means Stout Heart.

The Matchlock Gun retells the true story of the Van Alstyne family that has been passed down through generations. The Van Alstynes were Dutch pioneers who settled New York to escape political persecution. Teunis Van Alstynes is drafted to help the militia deal with Indian raids spurned on by the French. While Teunis is away, his wife and children must band together and defend themselves when the Indians attack*. Their mother, Gertrude, takes a pivotal role in keeping her children safe by leading the Indians within the range of the Matchlock Gun and instructing her son, Edward, in the perfect time to shoot it. While my modern sensibilities cringe at the sight of a child murdering anyone, maybe in this life or death situation, the brave thing is to strike fast.

Both of these stories show how children manage desperate situations with calm and perseverance. While most of us don't face intense scenarios like these every day, by reading these books, we are reminded to confront our personal demons and rise above our limitations. Change might start with coffee at Starbucks or a trip out to sea, but the important thing is to take the plunge.


*As an aside, this book makes the Indians into the aggressors, despite the fact that we stole their land from them. African-Americans are also mistreated in this book. This book belongs in a different time, and does not hold up in our modern light. For more on this, check out http://www.oyate.org/books-to-avoid/matchlockgun.html.

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