The Sign of the Beaver is the third and last of Elizabeth Speare’s works to have a plot based on the conditions of survival in the frontier of early colonial America.
Deep in the uninhabited forests of Maine, thirteen year-old Matt and his father have established a new life for themselves. Complete with a new cabin and wide claim, both have worked hard to create a decent existence out of their land. The final task left to fulfill is to escort Matt’s mother and siblings in Massachusetts to the prospering settlement. Leaving Matt alone in charge, Matt’s father must bring back the rest of their family. Matt, however, has an even more arduous undertaking to perform than his father. He must protect and maintain their home, which quickly proves to be extremely difficult.
Although he feels sure of himself and all he can accomplish single-handedly, Matt’s dreams of responsible independence slowly disintegrate as he realizes the reality of his situation. Alone and not certain of when or if his father will return, catastrophes leave Matt helpless and on the brink of starvation. As problems spring up faster than he can solve them, Matt finds an unexpected ally when all seems lost. In exchange for saving his life and helping him survive, Matt’s savior has one request: teach his grandson, Attean, how to read English.
It is here that a fierce battle of wills begins, as Matt and Attean struggle to appreciate each other’s cultures and reconcile their differences. In the end, though, it is Matt who learns to respect the Native Americans’ reverence for nature and their understanding of the environment’s balance. The Sign of the Beaver is no typical frontier adventure. It is very much like Robinson Crusoe, the novel mentioned within the storyline, since Matt is more or less abandoned in a vast wilderness for more than half a year and forced to rely only on himself.
The most important lesson Matt experiences, however, is how to live simply and efficiently, even if it means accepting a new method of survival. The Native Americans have pride and self-respect that surprises Matt, who finds himself questioning his own race’s accepted beliefs and customs after seeing the truth in Attean’s arguments. Like in her other historical novels, Speare shines a bright moral light through her main character. Her abhorrence of racism and prejudice is just as evident and strongly described through Matt’s thoughts and actions. Ultimately, The Sign of the Beaver is a remarkable sketchbook of nature’s wonders, the errors of so-called “progress,” and the majesty of life per se.