The Sign of the Beaver
Elizabeth George Speare (J Fiction)
“Dance,” Attean commanded. He seized Matt’s arm and pulled him into the moving line. The men near him cheered him on, laughing at Matt’s stumbling attempts. Once he caught his breath, Matt found it simple to follow the step. His confidence swelled as the rhythm throbbed through his body, loosening his tight muscles. He was suddenly filled with excitement and happiness. His own heels pounded against the hard ground. He was one of them.
It was the summer of 1769 when twelve-year-old Matt Hallowell’s father left him alone in Maine to protect the family’s cabin and corn field while he returned to Massachusetts to bring back his mother and two siblings. His father told him to make seven notches in a stick (a notch a day) and by the time that he was on the seventh, he’d be back and they’d once again be a family. Bad luck seemed to follow Matt soon after and when he found himself the target of some angry bees, a Penobscot chief and his grandson jumped in to save his life. Wanting his grandson to learn the language of the white man, the chief made a treaty with Matt: teach his grandson, Attean, to read in exchange for food. Eventually, the two boys formed an unlikely friendship and as more sticks began to pile up, Matt was faced with having to choose between joining the tribe and heading north or waiting for a family that may never come.
A Newbery Honor Book recipient in 1984, The Sign of the Beaver is really a love letter to the Penobscot, an Indigenous people in North America and a federally recognized tribe in Maine. Speare gives her readers insights into tribal culture and customs and exposes their devotion and respect for nature, wildlife, and boundaries of the surrounding tribes. Time and again Matt questions Attean’s actions and every time his response centers on recognizing the value and worth of the land they walk, the animals they’ve killed, and the life they’ve been given. By learning Attean’s ways, Matt begins to realize that he is just a very small part of a very big picture and as his confidence as a hunter grows, so does his world view and his new understanding of why the white man is so despised and mistrusted by these native peoples.
The Sign of the Beaver isn’t just a story about one boy’s resilience, bravery, and sense of duty, it’s also a lesson in how we should never take more than we are given, that we should appreciate differences and look for commonalities, and that empathy and kindness can do more for bridging a gap and forging a relationship than signed treaties and firm handshakes. This is a great story for young readers and a fascinating look into the Indian way of life. Although there are a few scenes of animal cruelty and suffering, Speare sticks to keeping this book authentic by not avoiding the uncomfortable thus making this book a valuable read. Although it has plenty of action and the characters are well developed, the story seems to lose a bit of steam near the end and tended to drag.
As a way of showing the chief his gratitude, Matt offered him his one prized possession—his beloved Robinson Crusoe. It was from this book that Matt read passages to Attean and where he discovered that Attean was just as passionate about storytelling as he was proving once again that a beautifully told story not only has the ability to draw us in, but it can also connect us as well.
* Book cover image attributed to: www.goodreads.com
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