The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Genre: Historical, Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.)
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Poinsettia

In this Newbery Honor book, a thirteen-year-old boy struggles to survive on his own in the wilderness of eighteenth-century Maine.

When Matt’s father leaves him on his own to guard their new cabin in the wilderness, Matt is scared but determined to be brave and prove that he can take care of himself. And things are going fine until a white stranger steals his gun, leaving Matt defenseless and unable to hunt for his food. Then Matt meets Attean, a Native boy from the Beaver tribe, and soon learns that people called the land around him home long before the white settlers ever arrived. As Attean teaches him more about his own culture, Matt must come to terms with what the changing frontier really means. Now with an introduction by critically acclaimed writer Joseph Bruchac about the historical context and the relationships between Native peoples and white settlers in the eighteenth century.

Matt knew life alone in the wilderness of Maine wouldn’t be easy, but he had no idea just how many challenges he would face.
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Matt is in a tough situation. He and his father have worked hard to build a new cabin for their family. However, his father needs to go back to Massachusetts and retrieve the rest of the family. Matt will have to take care of the cabin and garden for months while his father is gone. The garden is especially important as the family will depend on a good harvest to survive the winter. It is a heavy weight for a young boy to bear.

At first, things go smoothly enough. Matt follows his father’s instructions and settles into a comfortable routine. I admire his bravery and sense of duty. However, when Matt’s gun is stolen, he finds himself with limited options for obtaining food and no way to defend himself. As if that weren’t bad enough, a disastrous encounter with bees leaves Matt injured and sick. Matt’s story could have ended there, but he is found by Saknis and his grandson, Attean, members of the Beaver tribe.

Matt and Attean have an interesting relationship. At first, Attean clearly wants nothing to do with Matt. Attean only visits Matt because Saknis wants Attean to learn to read English. Matt isn’t exactly fond of Attean either, but he is grateful to Saknis for his help after the incident with the bees and wants to show his appreciation, so he agrees to teach Attean. The lessons do not go well. At first, both boys are stubborn and unwilling to look past their differences. However, the walls between the two gradually begin to break down. Attean enjoys the stories that Matt reads, and Matt learns to make snares and a bow and arrows. Matt finds himself looking forward to his treks through the forest with Attean. The tension between the two eases as they take the time to learn from each other and eventually become friends. When Matt’s father isn’t back at the appointed time, Matt is faced with a difficult choice. Will he risk facing winter alone in the cabin, or leave with Attean and his family?

I read The Sign of the Beaver when I was young, and I found the plot to be just as captivating as an adult. I especially enjoyed reading this book with my children and watching them experience it for the first time. We were all on the edge of our seats as Matt and Attean faced bees, a bear, metal traps, and the arrival of winter. I will say that the portrayal of the Native Americans is somewhat problematic. I highly recommend reading the introduction before reading the novel as it addresses some of these issues. Despite these issues, I believe at its heart The Sign of the Beaver is a story of friendship and definitely worth reading.

I truly enjoyed rediscovering The Sign of the Beaver. It is a tale of friendship and adventure sure to capture the imaginations of readers young and old alike.

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