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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

In The Sign of the Beaver, Elizabeth George Speare creates a wilderness tale with two adolescent boys as principal characters. The adventure elements of the novel provide a setting for the struggles of a white boy and an American Indian boy to prove themselves to be men. Each boy struggles to gain the respect of his elders, and, as their lives become intertwined, a mutual respect becomes part of the goal.

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Matt Hallowell, almost thirteen, and Attean, already fourteen, are forced together against their wills. Pa trusts Matt to care for the homestead while he is away, but Matt does not possess the necessary survival skills for the challenges awaiting him in the wilderness. His rifle is stolen, a bear eats much of his food supply, and he is attacked by bees. Attean and his grandfather, Saknis, save Matt’s life. Saknis makes a treaty with Matt: He will bring food to the boy in exchange for reading lessons for Attean. Attean proves to be a hostile pupil, while Matt is a reluctant teacher. The reading lessons proceed miserably for both boys until Matt reads aloud from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). Attean shows interest in the story in spite of his obvious disdain for all white people.

Day after day, the boys read and take walks in the woods, where their roles are reversed as Attean becomes the teacher. Yet, most of Matt’s efforts fail to change the coldness in Attean’s eyes.

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Readers follow Matt and Attean through twenty-five short chapters hoping for friendship to develop. In many chapters, a cultural conflict is revealed through an event in Robinson Crusoe or an opposition of perspectives. For example, Attean is offended by the term “slave” in Robinson Crusoe, and Matt cannot agree with leaving a wounded fox in a trap because it was not on the Beaver clan’s hunting ground.

Speare’s use of foreshadowing encourages readers to predict events. Early in the novel, Matt is visited by a man who notices Pa’s rifle hanging above the cabin door. Readers can sense Matt’s discomfort and are not surprised when the rifle is stolen as Matt sleeps. The mention of animal traps may cause readers to predict fearfully that Matt may be in danger. Neither Matt nor Attean is harmed, but Attean’s dog is caught, which becomes a significant event in the forging of the fragile relationship between the boys.

Speare offers the critical reader an opportunity to observe subtle changes in the boys and in their relationship, permitting readers to identify changes before the boys themselves become aware of them. Attean teaches Matt to make and use a snare, a fishhook, and a bow before the boys realize that they are no longer enemies. Attean’s speech becomes much improved by the end of Robinson Crusoe, as Matt eventually notices.

Many differences in the two cultures are illustrated as Matt and Attean struggle to understand each other. After Attean kills a bear, Matt is confused when the rest of the work is left for the women of the tribe. Attean is scornful when Matt tends crops, which he also views as “squaw work.” Each boy struggles with his own culture’s standards for becoming a man worthy of the respect of other men. Matt must face the oncoming of winter and the fact that his family is long overdue. Attean must prove himself worthy to go on a long hunt with the tribe’s warriors. Together, through being both teacher and pupil, Matt and Attean reach their goals.

Setting

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99

The story takes place in the late 1760's. The northeast coast of America has already been settled by Europeans, and the colonists are gradually cutting down forests, establishing farms, and pushing the Native Americans into Canada.

Twelve-year-old Matt Hallowell is alone in the woods of Maine. He and his father have cleared some land and built a log cabin, while his mother and sister have remained in Quincy, Massachusetts. As the novel opens, it is summer and Matt's father has gone to fetch the rest of the family, leaving Matt to look after their new home for several weeks.

Literary Qualities

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The Sign of the Beaver is in many ways a retelling of Daniel Defoe's early eighteenth-century novel Robinson Crusoe, the novel Matt chooses for Attean's ill-fated reading lessons. Like Crusoe, Matt is stranded in a wilderness. But for the most part, Speare switches the roles of the white man and his Native American companion: "[Matt] remembered Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday. He and Attean had sure enough turned that story right round about." In Defoe's novel, Crusoe rescues Friday, and Friday becomes the white man's faithful servant; in Speare's novel, Matt realizes that it is always Attean who is "leading the way, knowing just what to do and doing it quickly and skillfully," while Matt, "a puny sort of Robinson Crusoe, tagged along behind, grateful for the smallest sign that he could do anything right." Defoe depicts most of the Native Americans that Crusoe encounters as ruthless cannibalistic savages. Speare, on the other hand, depicts the Native Americans as having great regard for the sanctity of life. Attean's people take only what they need from nature, find a use for every part of the animals they hunt, and solemnly apologize to the animals' spirits.

The Sign of the Beaver is told by a third-person limited omniscient narrator who relates Matt's thoughts and feelings. Nothing is wasted in the carefully crafted narrative. Speare unobtrusively weaves details about life in eighteenth-century America into the plot, selecting those details that provide insight into either Native American or white culture. For example, the settlers make conspicuous blazes on trees with knives, while the Native Americans create subtle signs by perhaps pushing two stones together or breaking a twig.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 210

Speare handles difficult cultural conflicts with sensitivity and tact. The story is told primarily from the perspective of Matt, a young white settler and a sympathetic character. As Matt begins to understand and appreciate Attean's culture, he realizes the enormity of the problems that the settlers are causing for Native Americans. The Native Americans do not have concepts of land ownership as the settlers do, but they have definitely marked hunting territories. Because the Native American ways of staking out territory differ from the settlers' ways, the settlers simply ignore them. As the settlers take over their hunting grounds, the Native Americans must move further west, as Attean's people do at the end of the novel. Matt knows that he and his family are part of the influx of settlers responsible for driving away the Native Americans, but he does not know what to do about it other than try to explain his friendship with Attean to his family, who are startled that he has befriended a Native American. Speare offers no easy solutions for the complex problems she presents in The Sign of the Beaver, but she does suggest that solutions are possible only if people of different cultures or backgrounds first make an effort to understand one another.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 83

Fuller, Muriel, ed. More Junior Authors. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1983. Contains a brief autobiographical sketch by Speare.

Kirkpatrick, D. L., ed. Twentieth Century Children's Writers. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983. The entry on Speare summarizes her career, lists her publications, and gives brief critical comments on her major works.

Sloan, Eric. Diary of an Early American Boy. New York: Ballantine, 1984. A historical reconstruction of the daily life of a young man who lived in the same era as Matt Hallowell.

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