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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Starfish by James Crowley (J Fiction)

Starfish

James Crowley (J Fiction)

Orphaned at a young age, nine-year-old Lionel and his older sister Beatrice have lived at the Chalk Bluff boarding school on the Blackfeet Indian reservation for six years. Beatrice defiantly holds on to the traditions of her people, which causes growing tensions between her, the priests, and the officers who live in the nearby military outpost. When Beatrice is finally pushed to the brink, she steals the captain’s prized horse and escapes with Lionel into the wilderness in search of their grandfather. Grandfather will know how to help them, but first they must survive the harshness of the Montana winter.

James Crowley’s Starfish is packed with action and adventure and provides readers with a powerful female protagonist who is fearless, principled, and wise beyond her twelve years. The writing is detailed and the chapters are short, which add to the tale’s rapid and charged pace. Readers share in Beatrice and Lionel’s struggle to survive the elements and hunger; cheer their ability to outrun and outwit bounty hunters (they are understandably considered horse thieves); and support their loyalty to their customs and beliefs. Crowley creates a suspenseful story through wonderful storytelling that is a love letter to nature and Native American culture. Although the novel is littered with mild profanity (it’s nothing that younger audiences wouldn’t hear in a standard Marvel movie) and contains a few instances of violence, these shouldn’t discourage the targeted age range of 8-12 from reading it.

I loved the insights into Blackfeet tradition and I’m a total pushover for stories that highlight strong sibling relationships; however, the only thing that held back a five-star rating was the ending. It felt abrupt and awkward and didn’t match the same feel and flow of the rest of the book. I am not one that demands a happy ending in order to fully enjoy a story, but I do need an ending that is thoughtful and provides adequate closure. Because Crowley spent so much time and care giving readers such a well-developed story, it felt as if he ran out of steam at the end.

I find that with nearly every book, the last few pages will either make or break a story for me and in this case, those last pages of Starfish just felt incomplete and hollow. Unlike the ravens and eagle that soared high in the Montana sky, this story doesn’t reach the heights that I hoped it would, but it still manages to lift the spirits and take us on an unforgettable journey.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (J)

The Birchbark House

The Birchbark House    

Louise Erdrich (Juvenile Fiction)

“She was named Omakayas, or Little Frog, because her first step was a hop.”

Omakayas is seven years old and lives on an island in Lake Superior with her family.  They are Native American and belong to the Ojibwa tribe.  It is the summer of 1847 and everyone is busy preparing for fall.  Once their birchbark house is built, there are skins to soften and tan, berries to gather, and the corn patch to tend.  The family works together to ensure their survival from season to season, but all Omakayas is focused on is avoiding her pesky little brother, thinking of ways to be more like her big sister, and watching her father worry about the ever-increasing encroachment of the “chimookoman”, the white people.  Still, life is good for Omakayas and her family until that one winter night when a stranger enters their community and makes Omakayas reevaluate everything that she once thought important.

The Birchbark House is reminiscent of The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, only Erdrich tells her story from the Native American point of view.  We follow Omakayas and her family through one full year and learn how they gather and preserve their food, construct their lodgings, deal with the harshness and dangers of their environment, treat their sick and wounded, and struggle for survival.  Any fan of our spirited prairie heroine, Laura Ingalls, will appreciate this new perspective on the same issues that we all encounter: love, loss, family, friendship, and finding your place in a very big world.

There is an Ojibwa proverb that says, “Sometimes I go about pitying myself and all the while I am being carried across the sky by beautiful clouds.”  There is point in the story where Omakayas is thrown into a very deep and dark place that tests both her strength and faith.  But in time, she realizes all the gifts that life has yet to offer and that is just enough to allow her to rise above her sorrow and look up to the sky—into the clouds—for hope.

*Reviewer’s note: The Birchbark House is the first in a series of five books by Louise Erdrich that follows the life of Omakayas and her Ojibwa community.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

Brady Udall

“If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head.  As formative events go, nothing else comes close.”

Seven-year old Edgar Mint is what you might call a “miracle boy”.  The son of a drunk, heartsick mother and absentee, wannabe cowboy father, he survives a near-fatal accident only to live a life in reverse.  His early years are filled with heartache, hard choices, and terrible consequences while later on he enjoys the sheltered, unfettered, and uncluttered life of a child.  Throughout his entire life, Edgar is always being saved and, quite frankly, he’s getting pretty sick of it.  But once he finds religion, Edgar finally realizes what his God-given purpose is: to find and forgive the man who nearly killed him.

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint is undoubtedly one of the most entertaining and immersive books that I’ve read in quite a long time.  Udall doesn’t waste a single word on frivolous details or superfluous backstories.  Instead, he gives us a rich story that neither lags, stalls, or grows tedious.  Every chapter is thoughtful, engaging, and provocative, and Udall takes great care in introducing us to Edgar and slowly allowing us to care about this peculiar and resilient little outcast.  Throughout his journey, Edgar meets his share of heroes and villains, teasers and tormentors, bullies and a best friend.  He survives physical, verbal, and emotional abuse and faithfully captures every thought and memory through an old Hermes Jubilee typewriter: “I typed because typing, for me, was as good as having a conversation.  I typed because I had to.  I typed because I was afraid I might disappear.”

I can’t remember the last time when a book so deeply transported me into a fictional world or when I felt so drawn to a character.  Edgar’s story is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.  All too young, he accepts misfortune as his constant companion yet attempts to turn every bad situation into a learning experience.  Edgar’s comical take on either the harshest of circumstances or the cruelest of individuals is both pitiful and inspiring.  Thankfully, hope runs eternal for our miracle boy and when he finds someone who truly loves and cares for him, Edgar realizes that being saved might not be such a bad thing after all.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com