The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare (J Fiction)

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.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.goodreads.com

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Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome    

Edith Wharton (Adult Fiction)

It was a long time since any one had spoken to him as kindly as Mrs. Hale.  Most people were either indifferent to his troubles, or disposed to think it natural that a young fellow of his age should have carried without repining the burden of three crippled lives.  But Mrs. Hale had said, “You’ve had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome,” and he felt less alone with his misery.

Ethan Frome’s daily existence is just as cold, bleak, and barren as the winters in his Starkfield, MA hometown.  His farm is in neglect, his mill is in decline, and whatever money he has left goes to the care and treatment of his ever sickly, spiteful, and sour wife, Zeena.  The only bright spot is Mattie Silver, Zeena’s cousin who comes to the farm to act as housekeeper and caregiver.  Though highly moral and virtuous, Ethan can’t deny the forbidden feelings he has for Mattie and can’t help imagining an alternate life where the two of them might be together and happy.

Edith Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize and it’s no surprise why after reading Ethan Frome.  Only an author as skilled as Wharton can make bleakness so beautiful and tragedy so fascinating.  Here’s how she describes Mrs. Ned Hale, the daughter of the village lawyer: “It was not that Mrs. Ned Hale felt, or affected, any social superiority to the people about her; it was only that the accident of a finer sensibility and a little more education had put just enough distance between herself and her neighbors to enable her to judge them with detachment.”  What a delicious way of saying that Mrs. Ned Hale was nothing but an uppity and moralistic snob…although to her credit, she is quite fond of our Mr. Frome and sympathetic to his unfortunate circumstances.

In anyone else’s hands, Ethan Frome would be a very dark, depressing, and dispirited story, which it undoubtedly is.  However, Wharton presents readers with a thoughtful and illustrative commentary on morality, responsibility, and the burdens that come with decency, loyalty, and honor.  I was quite surprised to find that Ethan Frome was made into a movie in 1993 (starring Liam Neeson, Patricia Arquette, and Joan Allen).  My first and only reaction to this discovery was, “Why?”  Once you’ve read Wharton’s 1911 novella, you know that translating her words to film is not going to have the same impact and would only spell doom (and Roger Ebert agreed).  One reviewer of the book likened Ethan Frome to Romeo and Juliet, but if Wharton were to hear this comparison, I would imagine her reply being something like, “Oh, if Ethan and Mattie should only be so lucky.”  Frome’s story is pathetic, cruel, sad, and hopeless and we love him all the more for it.

I put off reading Ethan Frome for a while as I had always imagined it to be a daunting and challenging read, but it was actually quite engaging and immersive, and I never felt overwhelmed by its imagery or subject matter.  It’s truly deserving of the term “classic” and although I didn’t form a connection with this particular work (which is why I rated it a four versus five), it has given me the confidence to seek out other works by Wharton, which I will do without fear of consequence.  If only Ethan Frome was capable of doing the same.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.simonandschuster.ca

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