Elizabeth George Speare not only wrote The Sign of the Beaver, but also another book that many girls, including me, have loved reading during elementary and middle grades, The Witch of Blackbird Pond.
I bought The Sign of the Beaver when my son was young, and we were homeschooling. I’m pretty sure he never read it, and neither did I. It set on the shelf, untouched. I recently saw it as recommended reading for elementary and middle grades, so I decided to read it for the first time. It sparked so many memories for me and the time I spent playing outside with my older brother.
Growing up, my brother and I watched cowboy and Indian series on TV and then we would go out and play as the characters; when we weren’t playing as Tarzan, Jane, or Cheetah.
Great books and good television will spark imagination and encourage children to role play.
If we played cowboys and Indians, most likely we were the Indians, unless we wanted to try our hand at smoking like a cowboy. Then we would roll up notebook paper with crushed leaves inside, lick the edges to stick it together, as we saw the cowboys do, light it and smoke. My dad had made us corncob pipes for toys, but they would actually draw. We would crush leaves into the pipe and smoke that. I’m sure he would have been horrified if he had found out. (Note to parents: hide the matches. It’s a wonder we never set the woods on fire, because that was our favorite place to sneak away to.)
We liked to play as Indians because we had been told we were part, Dutch, German, and Indian. The only part I’m sure of is the Indian part, since my Dad’s grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee. When we played, we tended to favor Tonto, from The Lone Ranger TV show, and Mingo, from the Daniel Boone TV series.
Reading a book like The Sign of the Beaver would have sent my imagination soaring. Even now, it’s fun to follow the main character, Matt, who at age twelve, is left behind to guard the cabin he and his dad built, while his dad goes to fetch his mother and the rest of the family.
Set in the year 1768, Matt’s only reading material is a Bible and Robinson Crusoe. As he awkwardly manages life alone, an accident brings the help of an elderly Indian and his grandson. In return for the favor of saving his life, Matt is challenged to teach the reluctant grandson, Attean, to read… using Robinson Crusoe as his textbook.
Attean has a hatred for the white man, and teaching him to read is a challenging aspect since his loathing seems to include Matt. Over time, Matt discovers the reasons for Attean’s anger, and as they spend more time together and come to understand each other better, a friendship begins to emerge. Matt finds himself in the school of Attean as he learns to hunt, set snares, and fish, in new ways.
Attean disdains the “squaw’s work” that Matt is forced to do, but when Matt visits the Indian camp, he watches the women to learn better ways of cooking, tanning hides, and preserving his food.
Matt’s family is delayed. The Indians are leaving. Matt has to make the decision to stay through the winter and wait on his family, or go with the Indians he has grown to love.
This is a great historical fiction book for elementary or middle graders, especially for boys. It will teach the lessons of making choices, overcoming guilt, and having courage when things are going wrong. I highly recommend it for anyone, of any age.
* What TV shows, movies, or books sparked role playing for you as a child?