Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5
Elizabeth George Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver is a story of survival and friendship among two vastly different cultures. When his father leaves one day on family business, twelve-year-old Matt is suddenly left alone to guard their cabin in the wilderness with no weapons and having no way to hunt for food. With his father gone for longer than expected, Matt begins to develop a friendship with Attean, a boy from the local Beaver clan, and begins to learn about the Native American way of life in exchange for teaching Attean how to read.
The growing friendship between the two young boys lends this children’s book some gravitas that takes it beyond a simple survival tale. Despite coming from two completely different cultures, they bond over their enjoyment of a Robinson Crusoe book and their misconceptions of each other begin to be challenged.
The harshness of the settler lifestyle is intriguing to read about, as Matt is put into dangerous situations like trying to figure out if he can trust a stranger who wants to stay the night in his cabin or finding ways to deal with the constant fear of wild animals potentially getting into his food stores or attacking him.
The only really negative thing about the book was that I felt the Indian tribe was written in a very stereotypical way and may not be as historically accurate or nuanced as it could have been. Despite this, it was nice to see a Newbery Honor book paint Native American interactions with white settlers in a positive light, unlike The Matchlock Gun and Daniel Boone, as well as the author’s melancholic foreshadowing of the continual takeover of Indian land and how that affected Indian tribes. The ending highlights these ideas to great effect as it ends on a bittersweet note with Matt forced to choose one life over the other.
Overall, this is a decent survival story with characters that are easy to sympathize with. Young readers will be able to identify with Matt’s struggles while also introducing them to how settlers and Native Americans interacted and lived in the 18th century.