Book Review: “The Sign of the Beaver” by Elizabeth George Speare (1983)

“You’ve handled yourself like a man, Son. I’m right proud of you.”

From my early teen years, Elizabeth George Speare has been my favorite young adult author, specifically because of her book The Bronze Bow, an adventurous set in the time of Christ. That book became the first book I had ever re-read, so when I got a hold of The Sign of the Beaver, I was excited to see if it would have a similar impact on me, even though I am now no longer an early teen. While The Beaver did not offer as much character-building as I remember The Bow had done (as much of the protagonist as of the reader, mind you), I still enjoyed it for its simple plot structure and its emphasis on the topics of friendship, independence, and thinking for one’s self.

The Sign of the Beaver follows Matt, a boy of 13 who finds himself alone in the deep woods of Maine in the late 18th century, land which had been completely uninhabited by white men before him but which had served as the hunting grounds for the Beaver clan of Indians. When Matt finds himself living alone in his cabin without a gun and needing to gather provisions for his soon-to-arrive family for winter, he is forced to learn things all on his own, until one day an aged Indian convinces Matt to trade survival training for English lessons for his grandson, Attean, roughly Matt’s age. Matt learns from Attean more than merely how to survive in the woods, and what begins as a resentful relationship soon turns into a friendship that, although awkward, is binding and true. Throughout the story, Matt slowly begins to recognize that Indians are not the inept savages described in books like Robinson Crusoe, but are instead smart and capable people who, though often mistreated by the adventure-seeking or otherwise greedy white people, survive midst the harshest of both natural and unnatural conditions.

Few authors can work moral lessons into their writing handily without being so blunt, and while the lessons Spear desires to teach do seem obvious to me now as an adult, they were subtle to me as a teen, and they actually impacted my thinking. Since this is the case really for all young people who read books, and since I recognize the power that these youth stories can have on young minds, it makes me keenly aware of the importance of helping my children eventually choose their books wisely. I would not want to sit idly back, uncaring that my children are filling their minds with stories of moral deficiencies: stories that do not show the consequences of sin, stories in which the antagonist wins or in which the protagonist is the bad guy, or stories which glorify beliefs or activities unsuitable for children of any age. Books with these deficiencies are everywhere, and it is imperative that we parents help guide our children toward healthy reading habits. Elizabeth George Speare is an author I would have no problem recommending, as would be Katherine Patterson who is another favorite of mine. I suggest that you find your own favorites and build your own “OK to read” list of authors for your children, and let them have at it. You will do them a world of good, for whatever they feast on for entertainment will determine how they think. “You are what you eat” is a statement as fitting for food as it is for entertainment, much like the far-more trustworthy statement “As a (a child) thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7).

Obviously I would recommend The Sign of the Beaver as I would any other Speare book, and most assuredly to young boys of thirteen-ish or less. Girls may also find it entertaining, though females in the book are relatively few and far between.

©2012 E.T.

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