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.
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.
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.