Speare is a master storyteller with an impressive collection of literary awards. The Sign of the Beaver is a work of historical fiction as well as a sensitive portrayal of a clash of cultures and of wills. Attean’s face expresses spite at the boys’ first meeting, and his scowl deepens when Matt begins the reading lessons. Even as Attean teaches Matt to snare and to fish, his attitude does not change. Matt feels no hope of developing a friendship with Attean, but he does wish to earn his respect. He is painfully aware that Attean only tolerates his presence out of obedience to Saknis. Matt, on the other hand, hates Attean for the look of disdain that is ever present in his eyes. Yet, Matt also trusts Attean. In chapter 11, Matt realizes that their relationship has changed—they are no longer enemies. Speare’s skillful writing allows readers to observe that both boys were profiting from their time together: Matt was learning to find his own food and to mark his way through the forest, and Attean was improving in his ability to speak English.
Attean admits telling the story of Robinson Crusoe to his brothers in the village. Both boys regret coming to the final page of the novel, until Matt remembers his Bible, which provides a new supply of stories. A turning point in their relationship comes through the Bible story of Noah and the Flood. After Matt tells this story, Attean responds by telling the Beaver people’s story of Gluskabe and a flood. Matt wonders how different peoples can have such similar stories. Another major turning point occurs when the boys face an angry bear. Matt distracts the bear long enough for Attean to shoot an arrow between its eyes. They work as a team. When Attean smiles and says, “You move quick, like Indian,” Matt knows that he has finally earned Attean’s respect.
The two cultures clash because of a lack of the communication necessary to promote understanding. When Attean reveals that white people killed his mother, Matt is speechless. He tells Attean that war causes losses on all sides. Attean responds with a question: “Why white men make cabin on Indian hunting grounds?” Even though the war is over, Matt wonders if the hatred will ever cease. He has gained a clearer understanding of the wall between himself and Attean, a wall that stood between many white people and American Indians.
The answer to the question of whether Matt and Attean can forge a friendship comes with the approach of winter, when Matt must make a man’s decision. Ever hopeful of his family’s return, he decides to stay at the cabin, even though it could mean facing winter alone. Saknis understands and gives Matt a pair of snowshoes. Attean, at last, offers Matt a gift of friendship—his beloved dog. In return, Matt gives Attean his only possession of value—his grandfather’s watch.
With these expressions of friendship exchanged between Matt and Attean, readers can turn their attention to concern for Matt and his family. Matt has grown into a strong young man, capable of survival in the wilderness. He stockpiles firewood and food, and he makes household necessities and gifts to welcome his family. Matt’s courage, strength, and unfailing hope are rewarded when his family arrives just before Christmas.