HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: The Sign of the Beaver
Author: Elizabeth George Speare
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books, reprinted in 1994
Language level: 2 (some common euphemisms and veiled “cursing”)
Reading level: Grades 5-7
Rating: 5 stars (EXCELLENT)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Speare, Elizabeth George. The Sign of the Beaver (copyrighted in 1983 and published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 2 Park St., Boston, MA 02108.). We have usually watched a family video every Saturday evening. There are several that we own, but having seen all of them, we often rent one from a video store or check one out of the library. Since there were four of us, each one got to choose the video once in a four week rotation (beginning of course with Dad, the head of the house!). Right now I cannot recall exactly how long ago it was, but several years ago Karen brought one home (I think that it was from the library) called Keeping the Promise, starring Keith Carradine. When a video starts, I always like to look at the credits, and while waiting for the action of movie to begin, I saw the words on the screen, “Based on the book The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare.” Wait a minute! Stop the tape! I rushed over to the old chair where we kept the books to be read, some from the library but others that we had bought or been given, and began rummaging around through them. Behold, there it was! The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare, which Karen had recently purchased from the Children’s Book of the Month Club but no one had read yet. Normally, I like to read a book before I see the movie, but since we already had this film in the VCR (that was before DVDs), we went ahead and watched it. We all liked the movie. Our older son Mark liked the book when he read it. And I liked the book when I read it.
The Sign of the Beaver was a Newbery Honor book, but Speare had previously written two Newbery Medal winners, The Witch of Blackbird Pond in 1958, and The Bronze Bow in 1961, as well as Calico Captive, her first book which was an American Library Association Notable Book and was based on the true incident of Susanna Johnson’s captivity in colonial America. Having read The Sign of the Beaver, it is easy to see why she has won so many awards. The plot involves a twelve (almost thirteen) year old boy named Matt, who is left alone to guard the new wilderness home that he and his father built in eighteenth-century Maine while his father returns to their old home in Quincy, MA, to bring the rest of the family. The family is delayed through the winter, and when a series of mishaps leaves him injured and without food, Matt is hard-pressed to survive until local Indians teach him their skills. They invite him to go with hem, but he chooses to remain and wait for his family. Speare says that the story was sparked by a short anecdote that she discovered about a young boy who was left alone for a summer in the Maine wilderness and befriended by an Indian and his young son. So, while the book written by Speare is fiction, it is based on something that really happened.
As historical fiction, The Sign of the Beaver is a great way to learn more about the history of colonial America. The story is set in 1763. To assist in using the book as part of a homeschool curriculum, Progeny has a study guide. We have used some of the other Progeny Press study guides, which examine literature from a “Christian” perspective, and they are excellent. There are also study guides for The Bronze Bow which is set in A.D. 30 Palestine where the life of a boy named Daniel, who hates the Romans, is forever changed after an encounter with a wandering teacher named Jesus; and The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which is set in 1687 Connecticut, where 16-year old Kit comes to live with her Puritan aunt and uncle and runs into ignorance and superstition when she befriends a widow who lives beside Blackbird Pond. There were only a few items in Sign of the Beaver which I wished were a bit different. Ben, the old trapper who steals Matt’s rifle, really wants some “‘baccy” after Matt invites him in to eat, and says regarding the Indians, “I was demmed near as good as any of them.” Also Matt uses the euphemism “golly” four times and his Indian friend Attean picks it up from him and uses it once (yes, I decided to count them). However, there are several good points in the book. Matt’s father did not have any tobacco, and the implication seems to be that he did not approve of it. Also, when Matt goes to the Indian village and plays a game with the boys that is like gambling, his conscience bothers him because his father has taught him that gambling is wrong. Furthermore the whole premise of the book, that Matt has made a promise to stay at the cabin and wait for his family even when it appears that something may have happened to his family to prevent them from ever returning and the Indians invite him to go away with them, emphasizes the importance of being trustworthy. The movie includes many details that are not in the book. The movie was good, but the book is excellent reading. I had trouble putting it down (even knowing what happened because I had seen the movie), and I give it two thumbs up.