What I Learned From The Sign of The Beaver

From our 100 Maine Books package: An adolescent reader, a problematic book, and what it has to teach.

Maine Books
By Brian Kevin

When I was 10 years old, I read the young-adult novel The Sign of the Beaver and was moved to write a letter to its author, Elizabeth George Speare. It’s the only fan mail I’ve ever sent, and I don’t recall its substance, only that Ms. Speare wrote back. For years, her letter sat in a drawer at my mother’s house with other childhood mementos. It’s gone now, but I remember it was typewritten and brief, encouraged me to follow my literary ambitions, and came with a signed black-and-white photograph. Speare, who died four years later, was 80 at the time but younger in the photo, wearing a cardigan and pearl earrings, kneeling next to a golden retriever and looking every bit a patrician white lady from Connecticut — though, of course, I knew nothing then about Connecticut.

Nor about Maine, where The Sign of the Beaver is set. I was a bookish, little-traveled kid in a working-class Wisconsin family, making my way through the “feral child” canon of YA lit: My Side of the Mountain, in which an urban runaway lives off the land in the Catskills; Island of the Blue Dolphins, about a Native girl marooned on a California island; Bright Island, Mabel L. Robinson’s underrated 1937 Maine classic about a free-spirited, capable island girl navigating her too-civilized mainland school. 

They’re all fish-out-of-water tales and, to varying degrees, survival stories. So is The Sign of the Beaver, about a 13-year-old named Matt, from a family of white settlers in central Maine in the late 1700s. Matt’s father leaves him alone on the homestead to retrieve the rest of the family from Massachusetts, but when he’s delayed, a series of misfortunes leaves Matt short on food and supplies. To his rescue comes a Native elder from an unspecified tribe, along with his grandson, Attean, who teaches Matt to hunt, fish, and forage. Matt teaches Attean to read English, and the boys become friends. When Attean’s tribe migrates farther inland to avoid encroachment from settlers, Matt stays put, hoping for his family’s return.

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The Sign of the Beaver won a Newbery Honor, and it was long taught in classrooms as an introduction to Native cultures in New England. But it has also made lists of “books to avoid” for Speare’s depiction of its Native characters, and rereading the book as an adult, it’s hard not to cringe at Attean’s pidgin English and use of the word squaw. If not for kids, there are certainly better books to read for insight into the traditions of the Penobscot and other Wabanki peoples — among them, Frank Speck’s respected 1940 ethnography Penobscot Man and The Life and Traditions of the Red Man, by Penobscot journalist Joseph Nicolar, the rare example of a 19th-century Native writer recording his people’s history and oral traditions in English.

Still, it smarts to find The Sign of the Beaver on blacklists. I know now that Speare based it on the true story of young Theophilus Sargent, the son of Milo’s first settler, who survived a season in the woods with help from a Penobscot band. She once wrote that it wasn’t her intent to pen a survival story, and to me — although I couldn’t have articulated this at 10 — the book was indeed more than that. Where other heroes of “feral child” tales struggle and triumph alone, Speare’s story turns on a feeling of profound vulnerability in the presence of another. Matt gets by thanks not to his stubborn will but to the generosity of his Penobscot friend. And when that friend is forced to leave, Matt has a sense, if only an adolescent’s sense, of his own complicity. 

The book gave me my first meaningful inkling that there was such a thing as culture, that groups of people could live substantially differently from one another, and that there was much to be gained when those groups came into contact — and much to be lost. If I could write Ms. Speare another letter today, I would like to thank her for that.

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June 2020 issue