Call It Courage
At the heart of this story is a great message about what else - courage. To get courage one must face their fears. This is a lesson that any parent would want their child to learn. The unfortunate thing about this story is that the presentation of the lesson is in a package that is difficult to unwrap because it is not something children can relate to. We read this when my son was 6y8m, the same week we saw Kung Fu Panda II. After the movie I mentioned what a good message the movie had and that moral of the story had totally gone over my guy's head so I can only imagine that this book was purely entertaining but nothing was learned from it either.
The story is set in the Polynesian islands and follows a boy's personal odyssey to find courage and live up to the expectations of his father the Great Chief of the island (Hikueru). Mafatu is a fifteen year old boy whose mom died in a hurricane when he was three and the two of them were in a boat collecting sea urchins.
The death scene takes approximately two sides of a page and, as death scenes go, could be artistically beautiful. The mother fights valiantly to save her son but does not mince words when saying the mom has "died".
Understandably Mafatu fears the sea and even has nightmares about it. You can imagine that fear of the sea is not very practical when you live on an island. Especially if your name means "Stout Heart".
There is a mild bit of bullying in the early pages, such as on page 12,
The older people were not unkind to the boy, for they believed that it was the fault of the tupapau - the ghost spirit... . But the girls laughed at him, and the boys failed to include him in their games. And the voice of the reef...seemed to say: "You cheated me once, Mafatu, but someday, someday I will claim you!"
Mafatu's stepmother knew small sympathy for him, and his stepbrothers treated him with open scorn.
"Listen," they would mock. "Moana, the Sea God,...is angry with us all because Mafatu is afraid!"
The boy learned to turn these jibes aside, but his father's silence shamed him.
So one day Mafatu reaches his limit and takes off in a canoe. What follows is your typical survival story. There is a storm at sea, he is shipwrecked, Mafatu gets himself set up with shelter, fire and food. He also protects himself from predators and prepares a canoe to return home. It reminded me of Gary Paulsen's "Hatchet" which we listened to on CD about the same time. Naturally, as you might guess, he confronts his fears and through self-reliance, finds courage.
Throughout the book there are a lot of native words. Some are explained, some are only set in context. I often thought it would be nice if a glossary had been included.
Perhaps of even more consequence is the multi-god religion which is never specifically named but peppered throughout the book. it is all done very naturally just as your religion scatters itself throughout your life - but I mention it because the idea of a Sea God may be confusing or foreign to some children. I think as long as you spend a minute or two explaining it to your child before beginning the book, everything should be fine - your child will not lose their religion in the reading of this book.
There is a thread of suspense that runs through the book and just when you think it is not going to play out - it does. There are also intense scenes with sharks that run for a few pages. Children that don't handle intensity or suspense or who are easily scared may not find this a good bedtime story. (For them I'd say the book is still worthy of reading - just read in the day, read in the day I say.)
There is also a thread of pride that runs through the story. This seemed to me more of a cultural thing than a sinful pride but frequently Mafatu would say things like on page 58, "Before I go home I will make a dye of ava and paint a fine design on my pareu...I must not go back ill-clothed and empty-handed. Men must know that I have conquered the sea, and made the land serve me as well."
Of course there is a happy ending and it comes fairly quickly. This is a comparatively shorter book than other medal winners. We average about twenty minutes a night and completed the book in about ten nights.
The book also has some monochrome illustrations done by the author which show some totem poles and idols but nothing too graphic.