The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare is one of those books I don’t think I’ll ever tire of reading. The lessons about growing up, independence and the importance of family resonate loudly throughout the book – and the story keeps me turning the pages and my kids begging for “One more chapter! Please Mom!”
Twelve-year-old Matt and his father journey into the Maine wilderness to build their family a cabin. Once the cabin is built, Matt’s father leaves for Massachusetts to fetch the rest of the family – his mother, sister and a new baby that’s been born while they were gone. He leaves Matt in charge of the cabin and the crops – with his rifle, some cornflour, salt and a small jar of molasses his mother snuck into their pack, knowing Matt’s sweet tooth.
It’s lonely in the woods, but Matt manages for a little while. Then his innocence costs him his rifle, and his sweet tooth almost costs him his life. Fortunately, some Indians had been watching Matt from afar, and rescue him and nurse him back to health. Out of gratitude, Matt offers the Indian boy his prized possession – his Robinson Crusoe book – and ends up attempting to teach Attean how to read English.
Instead, Attean teaches him valuable lessons about the forest – and a friendship slowly forms.
Reading Robinson Crusoe is not necessary before you read Sign of the Beaver, but I’m sure it would be an interesting contrast. Speare helps those of us (including me) who haven’t read Robinson Crusoe by pointing out many of the differences between his and Matt’s experiences in her narrative.
The Sign of the Beaver is a great book for older students – junior high & above – to read to themselves. You’ll need to read it aloud to older elementary students – or find the audio book. If your children are easily emotionally distressed, you will want to read the final two chapters first to prepare them for a semi-sad ending.