The Sign of the Beaver
by Elizabeth George Speare. Novel. 135 pages. Grades 4-7.
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Until the day his father returns to their cabin in the Maine wilderness with Matt's mother, twelve-year old Matt must try to survive on his own. He has expected that they will be back before winter, but they do not. His rifle is stolen and he has been attacked by a bear and then by bees. Rescued by an Indian, Saknis, and his grandson, Attean, Matt is asked to teach Attean the white people's ways. As the boys come to know each other, Attean learns to speak English while Matt becomes a skilled hunter. Attean asks Matt to join the Beaver tribe and move north. Should Matt abandon his hopes of ever seeing his family again and move on to a new life? This Newbery Medal winner personalized the clash of values between whites and the Penobscot people of Maine.
That clash of cultures might be worth a closer look. Speare's portrayal of the Native Americans in this book is sometimes simplistic and there are "noble savage" elements. The Indians give Matt everything he needs and he gives Attean a watch, saying that Attean will probably never learn to use it. The feast and celebration of the Native Americans after the killing of the bear is told in such a way as to make them seem inhuman and savage. Throughout the book they speak in pidgin English. Students might like to read some of the criticisms of this book by Native American critics (see Through Indian Eyes by Slapin and Seale) and take a stand on the issues themselves.
Apart from Speare's characterization, however, there are larger issues here. Can only Native Americans write well about Native American culture or values? Is that true of any culture -- that the writer must be of it to write about it? What about books with characters from more than one culture? Is it possible for a person to garner enough information to accurately portray characters from a culture other than his or her own? How would you go about doing so?
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