At the age of 12, I was going to school, eating food purchased from grocery stores and living in a town where the largest wild animals were skittish deer.
At age 12, Matt, the kid in Elizabeth George Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver, is living by himself in northern Maine, in 1769, in a tiny log cabin surrounded by trees, grizzlies and not much else. This peculiar arrangement is only(!) supposed to last 6 weeks, while Matt’s father goes back to Massachusetts to bring the rest of his family to their new home. It doesn’t take long for Matt to lose his hunting rifle (due to stupidity, mostly) and a lot of his food (blame the bears), but before we get critical, let’s remember that most of us wouldn’t last a week in his shoes.
Luckily, Matt is soon rescued (from angry bees and possible starvation) by a Native American named Saknis and his grandson Attean. Saknis wants Matt to teach Attean English. Attean would sooner climb into a bee’s nest. And Matt soon discovers he’s a lousy teacher.
But the boys eventually bond, thanks to Robinson Crusoe, fishing and an endless competition of survival skills. Their friendship feels both genuine and complex–just when you think they’re going to be best chums forever, Attean explains what the white settlers did to his parents, or Matt says something insensitive. Still, they become true friends despite these barriers, and in the end, when Matt faces a tough choice between family and friendship, we’re just as stumped as he is about what to do.
Speare and Jean Craighead George must be kindred spirits, because The Sign of the Beaver makes me itch for the outdoors as much as My Side of the Mountain. Now I can’t wait to snowshoe, carve my own fishhooks (and I don’t even like fishing), or to be extra ambitious, take archery lessons (Katniss vs. Attean: you were thinking it too).
Next up in the O’Dell challenge: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson.