Friday, April 12, 2013

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare is an historical novel about a young teen who is left to care for his family's homestead and is befriended by native Americans.

Matt and his father have been working hard to prepare their homestead in Maine for the arrival of Matt's mother and sister. Now, Matt's father must make the long journey back to Massachusetts to fetch them -- and Matt must stay and take care of the cabin and the crops. When Matt's gun is stolen by a sketchy trapper who happens by, he worries how he will get along without the ability to hunt. He sees a lot of fish in his future! When Matt gets into trouble with a swarm of angry bees, a Native American man Saknis and his grandson Attean come to Matt's rescue. In gratitude, Matt offers them one of his prized possessions: a copy of Robinson Crusoe -- but the Native Americans do not know how to read English. Matt agrees to teach Attean to read. At first, Matt and Attean do not get along very well, but over time they come to understand one another better. When winter comes and Matt's family has still not arrived, Matt must make a difficult decision: will he keep waiting at the cabin, or will he travel with Attean and his tribe? What if Matt's father never comes?

This is a gripping story, but it has many problematic aspects, particularly in its treatment of Native American culture. Some of the author's word choices are especially poor -- Attean and his grandfather tend to speak in "grunts," women are sometimes referred to as "squaws," and when Matt observes a ceremonial dance, he compares it mentally to a clowing routine. On the other hand, by the end of the novel, Matt has come to a greater appreciation of Native Americans, recognizing that they have taught him how to survive is the wild and have extended hospitality and friendship to him, and there is a sense that he regrets the fact that the Native American hunting grounds will soon be full of white settlers. Matt's nuanced character development is probably what earned this book its Newbery Honor, but it isn't enough to offset the problematic attitudes inherent in the book, and I'd have a hard time recommending this book to young readers of today.

I listened to the audiobook version, and was not particularly impressed. The author has a tendency to use too much emphasis, a delivery that comes across as forceful and distracting to me.

(Reviewed from an electronic audiobook borrowed through my library system.)


  1. I loved this book when I was in second (third?) grade when we read it as a class. Revisiting it during children's lit and looking at it critically... yikes. Very different reading experience. =/

  2. Yes . . . I don't think I read this one as a child, but I'm sure I read other things with what would now be considered questionable or inappropriate viewpoints.