Mafatu's name means "Stout Heart", but unfortunately, the name is more of a source of embarrassment than of pride. He lives on the island of Hikueru (now part of French Polynesia) with his people, but has always been terrified of the sea. Because Hikueru is largely barren, his people rely heavily on the ocean for survival, but Mafatu is too afraid to go out in the boats with the others, and instead tends to women's work like mending the nets and helping in other ways.
As an infant, during a severe storm, Mafatu and his mother were swept out to sea in a canoe. They eventually washed ashore on an uninhabited island, where his mother died almost immediately. Mafatu was found some time later. Although he sincerely wishes to take part in the activities of his peers, he is simply too afraid to. He reaches his breaking point when he hears a boy whom he has been reasonably friendly with calling him a coward to the other boys. He knows that he must conquer his fears, or he will never find a place among his people. So early the next morning, before anyone is awake, he takes his dog Uri, a spear, and some drinking nuts, and steals a canoe from the shoreline. He sets out to sea, watched by Kivi, an albatross who has also become his friend.
The remainder of the book follows Mafatu as he learns how to be comfortable in the world around him. He and Uri weather a storm which washes them ashore on a lush, but deserted, island. There he teaches himself, from necessity, how to survive from the land and the sea, fighting animals and creating shelter for himself. Because of an alter he finds, he suspects that the island may be a sacred place for a feared tribe of cannibals, and eventually they return, and are angry to see Mafatu there. He manages to outpace them in his boat, and works his way home, finally the boy that his father can be proud of.
One thing that I really respect about this author is that he *paid his dues*. He learned to write and draw (this book was also illustrated by the author), but he had always dreamed of visiting the small mysterious islands in the Pacific. So after college, away he went, to Bora Bora!