The Blessing of the Hurricane

Call It Courage -- Sperry, 1940


from The Story Behind Modern Books, by Elizabeth Rider Montgomery (Dodd, Mead, & Co., New York, 1949), pp. 136-141




HAVE YOU EVER been called a coward? Have you ever been afraid of anything? Have you ever felt you had to overcome some special fear and prove to yourself that you are not a coward?

Then you can understand how Mafatu, the Polynesian boy, felt about his fear of the sea. You can see why he had to go away from his island -- his home and conquer the fear that had followed him all his life.

Call It Courage is an inspiring story for both the brave and the timid. It is a story you will read and reread, and like better with each reading. It grew from an old legend and was inspired by something that happened while the author was living in the South Seas.

In 1939, on his thirty-acre farm in Connecticut, Armstrong Sperry, author-illustrator, had just finished his seventh book for children and was wondering what to write next. As had happened so often when he was casting about for a subject for a book, his thoughts went back to the two years he had spent in the South Seas.

What a wonderful experience that had been, sailing to the South Seas on a copra schooner, wandering among the least-known islands of the Pacific, living with the hospitable, child-like natives who accepted him without question as a friend. What a carefree, idyllic existence it had been, especially on the island of Bora Bora. Until the hurricane.... Always, in thinking of those years in the South Seas, Sperry's mind went back to the hurricane and what that disaster had accomplished.

He had been living on the island of Bora Bora, as a guest of the chief, Opu Nui. Life in that beautiful spot was perfect. There was no hunger. Everyone had plenty to eat, for there were always breadfruit and bananas for the picking, and fish for the catching. The people made their own clothes of tapa bark. They built their own houses of bamboo. Everyone worked leisurely, lighthearted and happy, harvesting copra and vanilla beans for the schooners which would come to carry them away. In the evenings they sat around their fires, singing the old songs of their people and telling the traditional stories of how their ancestors had crossed the ocean in sailing canoes before the dawn of history. No one on the island ever thought of locking doors, for no one owned anything that others could not have, themselves, if they wanted to. Yes, Bora Bora was a veritable Garden of Eden.

But one day a schooner brought big news. A blight had struck the vanilla bean on all the other islands. Only Bora Bora had escaped this blight; their vanilla beans were still perfect, and since vanilla would now be scarce, their beans would bring higher prices -- much higher prices.

At first the news meant nothing to the happy Polynesians. What was money? They did not need it. They had everything they needed. But soon merchants and shopkeepers began to arrive at Bora Bora. They showed the natives what money would buy: store clothes instead of tapa cloth garments; frame bungalows in place of bamboo huts; cars to ride in, jewelry, ornaments, motion-picture shows.

Sperry felt as if he had a front seat for a tragi-comic play as he watched the change which came over the simple, lovable Polynesians when they realized that money -- the money their vanilla beans brought -- could buy all these things. The people were no longer happy to live simply, as they had before. Now they must have frame houses and fine clothes; they must have everything their neighbors had -- and more. Soon quarrels broke out, and robbery and fighting and killing. Bora Bora was no longer an ideal place to live,

One day Sperry said to his friend, the chief, "It's time I was leaving; there are other islands I want to visit."

Opu Nui looked at his guest and shook his head sadly. "That is not the reason you are going, my friend. You do not like what is happening here on Bora Bora. That is why you wish to go away."

Sperry could not deny it. "Your people are different since all this money came to the island.''

"Yes," agreed the chief. "My people are not the same. They are forgetting the old ways. No longer do they gather around the fires in the evening and sing the old songs and tell the old stories. No one hunts the wild pig today or spears the octopus or stabs the shark."

"They do not need to now," Sperry pointed out. "All they have to do is go to the store and buy what they want."

"It is not good, this that is happening," said Opu Nui, shaking his head. "We were a great people once. We had great courage. Our people crossed this ocean in sailing canoes when the world was young. Could any of the people of Bora Bora today do that? Do they have courage?"

Sperry could not answer that. He merely said again that he must leave soon -- on the next schooner, probably.

But the old chief begged him to wait. "It is almost the season of storms," he said. "Wait until they are over. February is the time of hurricanes. After that it will be safe to go."

So Sperry waited. And he would always be glad he did.

Toward the end of February a hurricane struck such a hurricane as Bora Bora had not seen in many years. Terrific winds and tremendous waves battered the island, and the people retreated to the mountain slopes for safety. When the storm was over at last and the people could return to their homes, what a sight greeted their eyes! All of their houses, both bamboo and frame, had been swept away. The trees were stripped bare of both leaves and fruit. Nothing was left on the naked island, neither homes nor food nor crops nor money.

The people of Bora Bora were overwhelmed with despair -- all but Opu Nui. He gathered his people around him and talked to them. He reminded them of the courage of their forefathers, of the valor that was theirs by inheritance. He persuaded them to sing the old songs and chant the traditional stories. Sperry watched and listened, fascinated. Could the valiant old chief reawaken courage and hope in his people?

He could and he did. Before long the Polynesians of Bora Bora were rebuilding their ruined lives, using crude tools reminiscent of the Stone Age. The task required great ingenuity, for they had little to work with. But they rose to the occasion manfully. By the time medical supplies and implements arrived from Tahiti, such things were not needed. The people of Bora Bora had rebuilt their houses. They had proved that they were worthy descendants of the early Polynesians who had been so daring. Sperry had never forgotten the thrill it had given him to watch their reawakening courage.

Now, years later, as he was trying to decide on a subject for another book, Armstrong Sperry went back again to that matter of courage. He remembered an old legend he had heard in the South Seas of a boy who had gone away from his home to prove his courage to himself so that he could prove it to others. Why not write a book about such a boy? A boy who was afraid, but who set out to conquer his fear. The only true courage is that which knows fear; surely that was a worthwhile theme for a story. Perhaps it was too adult an idea for a children's book, but he would try it and see.

Accordingly, Call It Courage was written and illustrated by the author. Published by The Macmillan Company, in 1940, it was immediately popular with boys and girls, and the following year was awarded the Newbery Medal as the most outstanding book during the year of its publication.

Thus the hurricane which struck Bora Bora years ago proved to be a blessing by awakening the people of the island to their heritage of courage. And it also proved a blessing to the young artist who was visiting there at the time, for it helped him to write a book which will be an inspiration to American children for years to come.



This page last updated Friday, 04/03/09, by Margo Burns, margo@ogram.org
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