The Sign of the Beaver is an excellent introduction to life among pioneers and Native Americans in the eighteenth-century American colonies. Full of precise detail concerning the tasks and objects that filled everyday life, the novel also contains a good deal of adventure and suspense. Most notable is Speare's insightful and sensitive portrayal of the relations among white settlers and Native Americans. Intertwined with the exciting plot is a strong but not didactic commentary on the tragedy that ensued when settlers forced the Native Americans from their lands.
(The entire section is 88 words.)
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Chapters 1-3 Summary
In the winter of 1768, the Hallowell family of Quincy, Massachusetts, purchases a plot of land in Maine territory. Their dream is to own a place of their own. Young Matt and his father make the arduous journey into the wilderness first. They plan to build a cabin and plant some corn in preparation for the rest of the family to arrive. According to their plan, Mr. Hallowell will return to Massachusetts to fetch his wife, young daughter, and his new baby in early summer. The round trip is estimated to take six or seven weeks. During that time, Matt will remain on the new homestead, to guard it and care for it, alone.
Mr. Hallowell is a little apprehensive about leaving his son with such a great responsibility, but he has faith in Matt, who has proven himself reliable. Before he leaves, he entrusts the boy with two valuable possessions—a silver watch that has belonged to the family for generations, and his good rifle, a "fine piece [with a] walnut stock as smooth and shining as his mother's silk dress."
When his father has gone, Matt takes the rifle and tries it out, just to get the feel of it. He then settles into the cabin and feels the desolation of its emptiness. Matt's father has instructed him to mark a notch on a stick for each day that passes. Matt reflects that by the time his family returns, it will be August. He will have had a birthday and will be thirteen years old.
Two days pass, and Matt discovers that it is actually "mighty pleasant" living alone. He spends his time putting the finishing touches on the cabin, chopping wood, tending the corn patch, and lugging water from the creek. Time passes quickly because there is so much to do. It is a good life, with only "a few small annoyances," one of which is the thought of Indians. Although his father has told him that there have not been any attacks in Maine since the last treaty was signed, Matt has heard some horrid tales. He has an eerie feeling from time to time that someone is watching him.
All in all, though, Matt is content with his life. He has grown used to the stillness, and he has found that in reality, the wilderness is rarely completely quiet. He is not entirely prepared, however, when one day, a visitor arrives unexpectedly.
In the dimness of an early evening, a heavyset man in a ragged army coat...
(The entire section is 678 words.)
Chapters 4-6 Summary
Without his rifle, Matt is unable to hunt. Fish, however, are plentiful, and he is able to supplement his diet with the provisions in the cabin. Things are going well, and Matt becomes complacent. One day, after a productive morning of fishing, he returns home to find the cabin door swinging open and a trail of flour dribbling off into the woods.
The inside of Matt's dwelling is a shambles. Somehow, he had neglected to bar the door securely, and a bear had gotten in, decimating his small store of food supplies and emptying his precious keg of molasses. Matt is furious at his own carelessness. He will not starve, but now he will have to rely solely on the creek to sustain himself.
Before long, Matt feels that he simply cannot endure another meal of plain fish. There is a bee tree at the swampy edge of a nearby pond, and he decides to risk a few stings to secure a bit of honey. At first, the bees do not seem to mind the intrusion, but when Matt breaks off a large piece of honeycomb, they attack with fury.
With angry bees swarming around his head and arms, Matt rushes blindly toward the water. His foot becomes entangled in the weeds covering the boggy ground, and when he tries to jerk free, a fierce pain shoots up his leg and he falls headlong into the pond. Thrashing desperately to get back to the surface, Matt feels strong arms around him. Half-conscious, he imagines that his father is carrying him. Through eyelids almost swollen shut from bee venom, he sees two dark-skinned Indians ministering to him—an old man and a boy.
Matt lies helplessly as the man gently removes stingers from his face, neck, and body. He then feels himself being lifted, and finds himself back in his own bed in the cabin. The Indian man makes him drink some bitter medicine from a wooden spoon, then he is gone, and Matt sleeps.
A day later, Matt finally awakens and knows that he is well. The old Indian returns. Able to see clearly now, Matt observes that he is dressed in a brown coat and fringed leggings, and that his head is shaven, except for a long black topknot. The Indian introduces himself as "Saknis, family of beaver." When he asks if Matt is at the cabin alone, the boy is surprised to find that he feels no need to lie as he had with Ben, and he tells Saknis the truth about his situation....
(The entire section is 694 words.)
Chapters 7-9 Summary
Matt has no idea how to teach Attean to read. Matt recalls the primer from which his mother had taught him, and he tries to find familiar objects in the cabin to correspond to each letter as a way to introduce the alphabet. Remembering the undisguised hostility expressed by the Indian boy the day before, Matt begins to doubt that he will actually come today. To Matt's surprise, Attean does arrive, carrying a dead rabbit which he unceremoniously deposits on the table.
Matt thanks Attean for the offering and then instructs him to sit on a stool next to him. Matt begins the lesson, introducing the letter A. Although the boy stares straight ahead in silence, he is a quick learner and is able to pick out the letter where it appears on a page of Robinson Crusoe. When Matt explains that there are twenty-six letters in the alphabet, Attean finally breaks his silence and angrily demands how long it will take for him to learn to read. Matt tells him that it will take "some time...it might take a year." In frustration, Attean angrily storms out of the cabin.
When Attean returns the next day, Matt decides to skip the alphabet lessons and reads aloud from Robinson Crusoe instead. Skipping over the parts that might be perceived as dull and wordy, he begins with the story of the storm at sea and Crusoe's resulting shipwreck. Attean sits impassively, and Matt, chagrined, wonders whether the boy understands a single word of what he has been reading. When he stops, however, Attean asks, "White man get out of water?" Attean has indeed not only understood but has been actively engaged in the narrative.
The next day, Matt continues reading from Robinson Crusoe, describing how the man lands on a small, unnamed island and swims back out to the wrecked ship to salvage items that might be useful to him. Attean scoffs at this, asserting that if Crusoe had been an Indian, he would not have needed the things from the ship, but would have been able to make what was necessary instead. That night, Matt reflects on what Attean had said, and admits that, in fact, Robinson Crusoe "had lived like a king" on his deserted island.
Attean continues to come for his reading lessons, bringing game for Matt to fulfill his part in the treaty negotiated by his grandfather. One morning, Matt...
(The entire section is 640 words.)
Chapters 10-12 Summary
Matt is a surprised and very much relieved when Attean returns to the cabin the next day. Having thought the matter over carefully the night before, he picks up Robinson Crusoe and quickly explains to the Indian boy that the story "is different from now on." Friday is not Crusoe's slave but becomes more of a companion. Matt reads aloud, tweaking the narrative so that the relationship between the two men reflects this quality, and Attean is appeased. When the reading is over, he asks Matt if he would like to go fishing.
Attean strides off into the forest, expecting Matt to follow. When they reach a part of the creek that Matt has not seen before, Attean demonstrates the Indian way of fishing, first with a spear, then with a hook. His manner is imperious, and though Matt appreciates what he is learning, he is a little resentful at his young mentor's attitude. Shared hunger brings the boys together, however, and after they cook and enjoy the fish they have caught, the mood is lightened. For the first time, Matt sees the Attean smile.
Seven weeks have passed, and Matt expects his family to arrive very soon. Attean has continued to come by every day. Occasionally, after the reading lessons they both loathe, he hangs around and watches Matt work. Sometimes, he brings an old, sorry-looking hound with him. Attean says that the dog is "good for nothing," but it is clear that he loves him.
One day, Attean takes Matt far out into the forest. As they venture into the thick wilderness, a part of Matt is uneasy because he knows that if Attean should decide to leave him there, he would most likely not be able to find his way back to the cabin. Despite his misgivings, however, Matt does not really think that this would happen. For some reason that he cannot explain, he feels that he can trust his Indian companion.
Attean takes Matt to a beaver dam, which belongs to his tribe. The area is marked with the "sign of the beaver," and any other Indian who sees it will respect its meaning and refrain from hunting there. Matt wonders if his own people would show the same regard for the property of another. He worriedly remembers Ben and resolves to explain the custom to his father.
When it is time to go back, Attean tells Matt that he must learn to find his way in the forest. He takes the lead, pointing out the small signs...
(The entire section is 641 words.)
Chapters 13-15 Summary
In the thick woods one day, Matt and Attean find a fox caught in a cruel iron trap. Attean notes that the implement belongs to a white man because Indians do not use traps made of iron. Though the fox is suffering, Attean will not touch it. It is on the grounds of the turtle clan, and their hunting rights, above all, must be respected.
Attean says that once there was enough game for everyone, but then the white man came and began to hunt for skins only and paid the Indians to set his traps. Matt reacts angrily. He is fed up with Attean's undying contempt for the white man, and he cannot understand an Indian code that allows him to leave an animal behind to suffer. Matt wonders if he and Attean will ever really be friends, but then acknowledges that, in some strange way, he wants to earn his companion's respect. He really does appreciate all the things that Attean is teaching him, and Matt laments that the boy despises reading, the only thing that he can teach him in return. Nonetheless, Matt realizes that, because of their interaction, Attean's command of English is improving day by day. Matt, too, is starting to learn some Indian words, and though he has trouble pronouncing them correctly, he knows that Attean is pleased when he tries.
Both boys are disappointed when Robinson Crusoe comes to an end. Attean comments that he has been retelling the narrative to his Indian brothers and that the story has been well-received. Matt then remembers his father's Bible and decides that the ancient stories recounted in it will be even more exciting to share than the tale of the shipwrecked adventurer.
Matt begins with the story of Noah and the ark. Attean listens intently and then tells Matt that his own people tell a similar story. Struggling to translate the tale from his own language, Attean recounts the experiences of Gluskabe, who, like Noah, survived a great flood. Attean's people believe that Gluskabe is the creator of the birds, animals, man, the beaver, and all Indians. Matt is intrigued, but he is puzzled too. He has heard that the Indians worship the Great Spirit, but Gluskabe sounds like one of the heroes in the old folk tales told to him by his mother. He wonders if, in their lore, Attean's people have many more stories like the one the young Indian has just shared.
(The entire section is 700 words.)
Chapters 16-18 Summary
In the afternoon, Attean returns to Matt's cabin, with his face "hideously painted" and a row of bear claws on a cord around his neck. His village is preparing a feast with the meat he has provided, and his grandfather has invited Matt to attend. The boys walk through the woods for over an hour and cross a small river in a canoe; the Indian village is on the other side. When Matt follows Attean into an open area filled with smoke, the Indians gathered around the fire at its center do not seem to notice him at first, but when Saknis, who is clearly their leader, welcomes him, they greet him with a "terrifying yell."
Matt watches as Attean shares a pipe with his grandfather, then begins to tell the story of their morning's adventure with the bear. The listeners respond with shouts of approval, grinning and pointing good-naturedly at Matt when Attean demonstrates how he flung the rabbit at the bear's head. When the narrative is over, everyone rises to dance, then the feasting begins, and Matt is given a delicious bowl of bear stew. More storytelling follows, but Matt can barely keep himself awake, so Attean takes him to an empty wigwam, where he sleeps.
When Matt awakes, it is daylight. He steps out of the wigwam and examines his surroundings; the village, which had seemed large and mysterious the night before, now just looks "shabby and cluttered." The men in the tribe have gone deer hunting, but Attean has been left behind. Matt at first fears that he is the reason that his friend did not go with the others, but Attean explains that they would not take him because he does not have a gun. Attean says that one day, Saknis will buy him a gun, but it will cost many skins, and the beaver are getting scarce. Matt thinks about the poverty that is so evident in the village and realizes for the first time what it must be like for the Indians to see their old hunting grounds being taken over by white settlers.
As he moodily takes Matt back to the cabin, Attean reveals that his grandmother had not wanted him to come to the village. Attean's mother had been murdered by white men for her scalp, and his father had died trying to avenge the atrocity. Matt observes that Indians did the same thing to white settlers, but Attean counters by asking, "Why white men make cabins on Indian hunting grounds?" Matt has no answer to this question, and he begins...
(The entire section is 694 words.)
Chapters 19-21 Summary
Two days later, Attean invites Matt to come visit at his village. His grandmother had been very surprised that a white boy would put so much effort into saving an Indian dog, and she welcomes him now. When Attean shows him around the encampment, Matt is fascinated by the work the squaws are doing, and he watches carefully as they pound corn kernels and spread berries out on strips of bark to dry. Attean, who scorns "squaw work," humors Matt for a while, then takes him over to play a game, similar to dice, with a noisy cluster of boys.
Matt is soon the loser in the game of chance and must forfeit his shirt in payment. Afterwards, Attean initiates another game, which is played with a ball and sticks. The game is rough, and the Indian boys are "bewildering quick and skillful." Matt, however, holds his own, earning the respect of the others by showing surprising skill even as he uncomplainingly absorbs vicious blows and jabs. The boys end the day by swimming in the river, and before they leave, Attean's grandmother makes her grandson retrieve his guest's shirt.
As they cross the river on the way back, the Indian dog sits close to Matt for the first time, and Attean notes that the creature remembers his kindness in saving him from the trap. At the opposite bank, Attean leaves Matt to find his way home alone. Matt is hesitant, but appreciates the vote of confidence. That night, as he lies in bed, Matt is content. He has gained the acceptance of Attean and the Indians, and for the first time since his father left, he does not feel alone.
When Attean returns to Matt's cabin a week later, he is solemn and distracted. He tells Matt that he might not come again for a long time, because it is time for him to go out to find his manitou. The Indian boy likens a manitou to a spirit and explains that every man in his tribe must have one. After making special preparations, Attean will go out into the forest alone, where he will wait for many days, not eating or drinking, until his manitou comes to him. Matt recognizes sadness and an uncharacteristic fear in his friend's eyes; if he is not able to find his manitou, Attean will never be a hunter among his people.
Attean promises that he will come back when his quest is over, but Matt understands that no matter what happens, things will never be the same between them. Even so, Matt sincerely...
(The entire section is 671 words.)
Chapters 22-25 Summary
Attean comes back to see Matt one more time before his tribe leaves. He brings gifts—a finely wrought pair of snowshoes from his grandfather, and a small basket of maple syrup from his grandmother. Matt says that he will help Attean's grandmother gather more sap when they return in the spring, but the Indian boy says gravely that his people will not be coming back.
Attean himself has a gift for Matt—the scruffy dog that he loves so much. Matt knows that he must give something to Attean in return, but he has only one possession of real value. Though he fears that his father will never understand, he gives his friend the watch that had belonged to his family for generations, and Attean instinctively appreciates that it is a thing of great importance. Awkwardly, the boys shake hands. Attean then commands the dog to stay with Matt and walks away for the last time.
Now that Matt is truly alone, he fills his days with work, gathering and storing food for the winter, for himself and for his family. Game grows scarce as winter comes, and though the fish in the creek keep them from starving, he and the dog are often hungry. To protect himself from the cold, Matt fashions a crude pair of breeches from one of his blankets and a hat from the skin of an animal he manages to catch in a trap. Thoughts of his family fill his head, and he makes them gifts—a set of wooden dishes for his mother, a cradle for the baby, and a cornhusk doll for his sister Sarah.
Matt had always thought of his sister as a "pesky child," but in remembering her now, he recalls her spunky nature with thoughtful regard. He reflects that Sarah is much like Attean's sister Marie; he wishes they could be acquainted with each other, but knows they never will.
Matt is not sure anymore exactly how much time has passed since his father's departure, but he recognizes that it is almost Christmas. Late one afternoon, snow begins to fall, and the next morning, he is able to use the snowshoes given to him by Saknis. Once he gets the knack of using the skillfully honed implements, Matt experiences a feeling of utter freedom. As he surveys the area surrounding the cabin, he realizes that he is no longer afraid of the winter ahead and that he is genuinely happy.
Matt is gathering...
(The entire section is 698 words.)