Towards the end of the first half of Albert Wendt’s novel Sons for the Return Home, Wendt fills an entire chapter (Chapter 16) with a series of almost Dueteronomical laws given to his unnamed protagonist and his brother by their mother and father. On the top of the hierarchy of rules and customs given to the boys by their parents is the denouncement of fear and cowardice by their father. “A man’s worth is measured in terms of courage,” their dad tells them “if he is a coward he might as well not live.”
Structurally it is interesting that Wendt puts this set of family “laws” in the middle of the book, because the reader can already see that some of them are in conflict with the life of the protagonist, and as the reader delves into the later half of the book, they are able to see the protagonist stray even further from this set of rules; in particular the one forbidding fear and cowardice.
Soon after this chapter, “the boy” and “the girl” go no an extended camping vacation together, a trip on which we begin to see their lives truly mesh, and their love grow. As the boy finds himself falling more and more in love with the girl, he is looking at a hawk and Wendt tells us he begins to see the “beauty of fear, the awesome depth of freedom.” The boy is finally obtaining something that is so precious to him and so vital to him (his love for the girl) that he is beginning to feel this immense fear of losing it. However he is still struggling to accept the problematic nature of going against the ideas that have been engrained in him since childhood, perhaps this is demonstrated by his furious frustration when the hawk is shot down by the girl.
However the boy is able to more fully accept this idea in a later chapter. As e approaches a party that we know he has been invited to by the girl, we are told he is “confronted with the fact that he could lose her.” He goes into the party and is extremely uncomfortable as the girl flirts and dances with other guys. She goes as far as to try to incite a fight between the boy and the host of the party. She tries to provoke the boy by screaming that he is a “coward.” However the boy does not respond, he simply walks out of the house and the girl follows.
Before the boy met the girl he would have fought the arrogant host of the party just to prove that islanders aren’t cowards, in honor of what his father taught him long ago. But the boy no longer feels the need to prove he is not afraid because meeting the girl has taught him “the beauty of fear.”
At the end of the chapter, after being told by the girl that she is pregnant, the boy finishes learning the lesson that he started learning while watching the hawk. He thinks “Loving her and knowing to the frightened quick of your bones that you can now lose her, has made you fearfully aware for the first time of the impermanence of all things and the finality of life.” Falling so completely in love with the girl, and being confronted with the possibility of losing her, made the boy realize the incredible power of fear. It made him realize that fear of losing something lets you know that you have a reason to live for; and so in contrast to what his father once told him, it is not in terms of courage, but rather in terms of fear, that the worth of a man’s life is measured.