The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

Sign of the Beaver

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Title: The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

Notable: Newbery Honor book, 1984

Premise:

Matt and his father have claimed a homestead in the Maine wilderness, but Matt’s father must return to civilization to bring the rest of his family  back.  Does Matt have what it takes to protect their claim and survive until his father returns?  When Matt experiences misfortune, a couple of members of the local Penobscot tribe help him survive.  But how do white settlers and Native People coexist?

My thoughts:

I’m really conflicted on this book.  I enjoyed the story, Matt’s fight for survival, and the blossoming friendship between Attean and Matt.  On the other hand, there were aspects of the book which I really disliked–the dumbing down of the Native Americans, the offensive language, the almost too subtle social commentary.

I’m not a prude when it comes to offensive language in a book, but this is a book aimed at children.  They won’t know that some of the words are outdated or downright offensive.  If it were just a couple of instances it would be easier to overlook, but it’s pretty pervasive.  I most certainly wouldn’t want my child to think that it’s okay to call a woman a “squaw” or a Native American a “savage”.  Okay, rant over.

Apart from that, there are several passages when Matt’s accepted way of thinking is challenged and he comes to a new understanding.  He entertains the idea that perhaps slavery is wrong…maybe Native Americans aren’t as “savage” as he thought…perhaps the white man’s priorities in life are not always superior.  I appreciate that Matt has those crises of thinking, but I think that they are not always spelled out clearly enough that a child would pick up on them.  I hesitate to introduce racist ideas to a child without a very clear follow-up that shows the child why those ideas are wrong.

I suppose the only way I can recommend this book is if you read it with your child and have some very candid discussions about what you are reading.  Some of the issues that will need addressing are slavery, racial terminology, gender roles and terminology, and a more in-depth look at Native American culture.  You can learn more about the Penobscot tribe here.  Also, this link has some helpful curriculum discussion points to address the issues I mentioned.

Possible Objections:

  • Outdated and/or offensive racial language (i.e. Indians, savages, heathen, squaw)
  • Outdated modes of thinking (racism, slavery is normal, Native Americans are uncivilized, etc.)

Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

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