Themes and Characters
The Sign of the Beaver relates how Matt Hallowell matures from a child to an adult in the course of several weeks that he lives alone in the wilderness of Maine. Early in the novel, Matt supplies a vagrant trapper named Ben with food and lodgings only to have his gun stolen by the blustery old trapper. Soon after, a bear raids the Hallowell cabin, leaving Matt with almost no food to sustain him while he waits for his family to return. Deprived of his provisions, Matt must rely on his own resources to survive. An early attempt to fend for himself fails miserably when he tries to retrieve honey from a beehive and ends up with multiple bee stings and a sprained ankle. Two Native Americans—Saknis and his thirteen-year-old grandson Attean— rescue the injured Matt, and Matt agrees to teach Attean to read English in exchange for their help.
Attean plays a vital role not only in Matt's survival but also in his maturation, though the reading lessons that Matt devises, first using a copy of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and then the Bible, fail. Robinson Crusoe proves to be a particularly disastrous choice when Attean becomes offended by the assumptions of white supremacy that underlie the portrayal of Crusoe's relationship with Friday, a Native American from South America who becomes Crusoe's faithful servant. Matt is shocked to realize that a novel that he has always regarded as a harmless adventure story contains such assumptions. The failure of the reading lessons—which Saknis hopes will enable Attean to understand treaties drawn up by settlers and thus check the white encroachment on his people's hunting grounds—reflects the historical reality that most attempts at fair negotiations between the whites and the Native Americans eventually failed.
The friendship between Attean and Matt develops slowly and is an idealized version of relationships between Native Americans and settlers. Neither of the boys understands the culture of the other whatsoever when they first meet. Attean is generally aloof and mistrustful, an attitude that Matt understands when Attean tells him that white men killed his mother in order to make money from selling her scalp. Attean's father has never returned from his mission to avenge her death. When Attean tells Matt about his mother's scalping, Matt argues that the Native Americans treat the settlers similarly, but is at a loss when Attean points out that the whites are destroying Native American hunting grounds.
Matt makes a tremendous effort to impress Attean, who scorns the white boy's ineptitude in the...
(The entire section is 657 words.)