This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1984–and the first–award-winner, The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare. This novel was also named an Newbery Honor Book that same year.
O’Dell began his award to honor American authors, especially newer authors, who wrote kids’ historical fiction set in the Western Hemisphere. I’ve challenged myself to read each one and write about the history and writing lessons I’ve learned or been inspired to research from each book.
In The Sign of the Beaver, Matt and his father have carved out a new home for their family in the woods of Maine in 1768 or ’69. Matt’s father then leaves Matt to take care of their growing garden while he returns to Massachusetts Colony to help Matt’s mother and younger siblings move to the new homestead.
While alone, Matt is robbed of his rifle and gets stung by bees. He is nursed back to health by a Native American man and his grandson, Attean. The grandfather requires Attean to supply Matt with meat, while Matt must teach Attean to read English.
The two boys start as enemies. Matt soon learns to see life through each Attean’s eyes, and he tries to earn Attean’s trust and respect.
History of Maine–I’ve read other books that have piqued my interest in Maine, but I’ve never visited the state and know little about it. This novel gave me a snapshot of what it was like for settlers and Native Americans during the time between the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War.
These days I think about Maine as an idyllic vacation spot and a good place to eat inexpensive, fresh seafood. But, during its Colonial and Revolutionary Eras, it was a violent place. There were many battles between whites and Native Americans, the English and French, and later the Americans and English.
Europeans had visited Maine since the late 1400s, trading and fighting with the Native Americans. In 1607, the same year as the English Jamestown Settlement in Virginia, there was another English try at settlement–the Popham Colony on the Maine coast. However, this didn’t even survive a couple years.
Maine entered the United States as part of Massachusetts. It wasn’t until 1820 that Maine broke away from Massachusetts and became a full-fledged state of its own.
Writing cross-culturally–At the time of publication, Speare was well-known for her research skills. However, the themes of understanding and respect in The Sign of the Beaver are now overshadowed by Speare’s seemingly incomplete research, especially in Native American culture.
A major fault, especially for a book aimed at elementary-age readers, was her usage of the word s–w for a Native American woman. Yes, it was a common term used by whites at the time, but it was also very derogatory. And in the novel, Attean (one of the “good guys”) uses that word.
According to Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac’s 2011 introduction to the novel, Attean probably would have used a different, non-derogatory, word for woman. Bruchac added,
“In 1983, when The Sign of the Beaver was published, it was widely known by everyone connected in any way with American Indians just how problematic the word squaw is.”
The usage of this word by Attean was not true either to the time of the publication or to the time of the setting of the book.
Speare died in 1994, so we can’t ask her about her research process, but perhaps she hadn’t talked with any Native Americans from Maine to learn their perspective which is difficult to learn from the writings of non-Native Americans.
The Sign of the Beaver has become a cautionary tale: writers need to make sure they accurately represent any culture they write about that is different from their own.
For more information:
When I get to visit Maine someday, where should I go and what should I see/experience? What Maine books have you read? What are your favorite well-done cross-cultural books (where the author writes about a culture other than his or her own culture)?