Book Review: The Sign of the Beaver

If this were an adult fiction book, it would be considered a novella. At 132 pages formatted for a middle grades reader, this is a very slim novel. Perhaps that is one of the many reasons it is one of my son’s favorite books. Not that anything is missing in this novel. It’s all there: the characters, the plot, the twists, the suspense, the growth, even the laughter and tears. All there.

A Newbery Honor book and one that is often assigned or at least suggested reading, The Sign of the Beaver was Elizabeth George Speare’s last book. Written some twenty years after her other renowned middle grades books (The Bronze Bow, Calico Captive, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond), it has a more modern flavor from the others, even though the content is still the 1700s colonial New England. It takes place completely in the Maine wilderness, and both the setting and list of characters is limited due to the content.

A man and his teenage son, Matt, have come to the northern New England wilderness to stake a claim on some land. They’ve spent the spring building a cabin and Matt’s dad will have to leave for the summer to fetch Matt’s mom, sister, and the new baby. Matt will be alone for around seven weeks, but he’s been given plenty to do—including fend for himself—and a gun to hunt with. But alone in the wild, it doesn’t take long for plans to fall apart and things to go wrong. A shady white man visits, and then a Native American “Indian” and his grandson, a boy about Matt’s age, Attean. They make a treaty with Matt, a treaty that will have a lasting impact on Matt’s life, not just because it saves it, but because it’s there as he faces new challenges and grows in one year from a boy into a man.

As I said, this is one of my son’s favorite books. It’s not just the brevity. My son favors two types of book: fantasy (with creatures) and boy-in-the-wilderness (with creatures). This book is of the second sort and takes place entirely in the wilderness. It is about a boy and is populated with creatures: a dog, squirrels, birds, bees, bears, beavers, etc. It has a great coming-of-age friendship and some great lessons, very boyish moments and observations of the world. It’s not complicated with romance or really anything beyond basic survival and the most simplistic—while also rich and deep—relationships. The writing is clear and concise, and there is some painting of the setting but is a bit minimalist for my taste. That’s the same thing with the characters, and while I felt a tiny bit surfacy and like things were moving so fast, this is Speare’s style and it has won her laurels for all four of her middle grades historical fiction books.

I admit that the cover sort of bothers me. I mean, it’s titled The Sign of the Beaver (which is an okay, but not great title) and this title is written on the silhouette of a bear. There’s some cognitive dissonance going on there, and I know I’m not the only one who had to shake clear their head when first seeing it because my daughter had exactly the same reaction when she saw it sitting on my bed the other night. “Um, that’s a bear, isn’t it? Why does it say beaver?” Probably not Speare’s fault. But I can’t think of anything else to complain about. It’s a great book, clean and straightforward, moving and interesting, a classic.

Of course, a big theme in Speare’s writing, the reader has to come to terms with Native American-white man relations in the colonial period. At the point of The Sign of the Beaver, the pioneers are moving onto the hunting grounds of Attean’s ancestors and pushing the Natives off. The Natives are likewise moving out West, where they are told there will be enough land for all, which we know wasn’t really true, ultimately. We see this process through the eyes of two teenage boys who are both struggling to find truth and a future in a place of pain and injustice. Matt wrestles with his preconceptions, what he’s been told, and what he discovers in Attean and his tribe. It’s a great exploration, but we all know it doesn’t really end happily. At best, we hope that Matt grew up to champion the Natives and to defend them, for his small part. As for your own kid or own self, it’s more of a considering of history from two sides and hopefully a wondering about our own preconceptions about people, places, etc.

Recommend. If it’s not one your middle grader’s reading list, you might want to add it.

“He trimmed the twigs from these, drawing his knife toward his chest as Matt had been taught not to do” (p40).

“But grudgingly he had to admit that Attean had proved to him once again that he didn’t always have to depend on white man’s tools” (p49).

“Mat was minded how his mother had often looked at him, pretending to be angry with him but not able to hide that she was mighty fond of him just the same” (p103).

“How could you explain, Matt wondered, to someone who did not want to understand?” (p117).

MOVIE

There is a low-budget movie that was made in 1999 that I plan on making my son watch with me this evening. Hopefully I’ll remember to review it afterwards.

* * *

I did end up watching this movie, which was free on some app I never used before, Tubi. It was really low budget, painfully so: like when it turned from summer to fall they planted a fake, orange-leafed tree in the middle of the summer woods and stood next to it for the scene. Lots of stuff like that, like you were watching an Afterschool Special or a Saturday afternoon movie. Or worse. It wasn’t all bad, though. The story was similar enough and you liked the kids. There was way too much added outside of the wilderness, however, as the story closely followed the parents’ journey from their old home and all the obstacles that they encountered along the way. We even have some romantic backstory and marriage complications which was like “What?!?” It really didn’t belong in this story. Some of their journey could make for interesting historical fiction but the marriage thing really missed the mark for the intended audience and a minor character wheedled their way into the movie in an unsatisfactory way. And on top of all that, the Native Americans behaved in ways that took them from historically accurate to inaccurate caricatures, even in their dress and homes, etc.

I was okay with watching the movie on a slow evening while folding laundry, but I would not recommend it.

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