Study Guide

The Sign of the Beaver Analysis

By Elizabeth George Speare

  • Tone

    Straightforward, Innocent

    The narrator for The Sign of the Beaver tells it like it is. Nothing's hidden behind complex metaphor and flowery language doesn't decorate developments. Check out this passage to see what we mean:

    Matt was feeling well pleased with his day. That morning he had shot a rabbit. He had skinned it carefully, stretching the fur against the cabin wall to dry. Chunks of meat were boiling now in the kettle over the fire, and the good smell came through the door and made his mouth water.
    […]

    He could hear the crackle of twigs under heavy boots. Matt leaped to his feet.

    "Pa!"

    No answer. It wasn't his father, of course. It couldn't be. An Indian? Matt felt a curl of alarm against his backbone. He stood waiting, his muscles tensed. (3.1-4)

    The narrator is clued into Matt, and clues us in by sharing Matt's thoughts and feelings in a straightforward way. Matt is never a mystery to us—here we understand the pride he feels about his rabbit and the nervousness he feels about Indians—which grounds us in the story. The straightforward tone sets Matt up as a sort of home base for us as readers to explore the rest of the woods from.

    Supporting the narrator's straightforward tone is the fact that Matt's own tone is pretty innocent. He's on his own in the wilderness for the first time, and the newness of everything to him really impacts the story. So when Ben comes alone, for instance, Matt doesn't trust him… but is also confused by this reaction. Check it out:

    The man peered curiously over Matt's shoulder through the open door. He could easily see that the cabin was empty.

    "You all alone here?"

    Matt hesitated. "My father is away just now."

    "Be back soon, will he?"

    Matt was puzzled by his own unwillingness to answer. He ought to be glad to see anyone after all these days alone, but somehow he wasn't. He didn't quite know why he found himself lying. (3.11-15)

    Why doesn't he trust Ben? Because he's a creeper, that's why. But Matt hasn't had a ton of experience with creepers in his life, so he doesn't get it. Good thing he listens to his gut anyway. Matt's innocence crops up time and again throughout the book, and as it does we better understand both his growth and the ways of the world that he finds himself in.

  • Genre

    Young Adult Literature; Coming-of-Age; Historical Fiction

    Young Adult Literature

    Let's see if everything is present.
    Teen perspective? Check.
    Parents out of the picture? Yup.
    Hopeful conclusion? Absolutely.
    Young adult literature it is, folks.

    Historical Fiction

    This one is easy: The Sign of the Beaver takes place in 18th-century Maine, and the characters are fictional. That about sums it up.

    Coming-of-Age

    At the beginning of the novel, Matt's an obedient and immature kid, who's willing to risk his life for a tablespoon of honey and assumes he knows better than the Indians he fears. But by the end of the book, Matty boy's whittling furniture for his family, confident in his survival skills, and respects the Indians as his friends and brothers. He's gone from being a kid to being a young man, which means this book is definitely in the coming-of-age genre too.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The sign of the beaver is all over The Sign of the Beaver, and you'll definitely want to hop on over to the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section to check out a detailed analysis of it. As far as the title is concerned, though, it's pretty much a shout-out to the fact for our main man Matt, the Beaver clan is what this story's all about.

    The sign of the beaver represents the clan that Attean and Saknis come from. So while it is literally a simple drawing found on trees, as a title it references how important getting to know Attean and Saknis is for Matt. It is through getting to know these two people—particularly Attean—that Matt really comes into his own, developing into a more confident and competent woodsman, and a less racist person in general.

    Really, though—click on over to the "Symbolism" section to really sink your teeth into this title. It's chockfull of meaning.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Matt throws his arms into his jacket and walks outside, smelling the fire and getting all warm and fuzzy inside about his plans to make dinner and not eat alone. After waiting months for his family to arrive, they're finally here.

    But the last line of the book is the kicker: "Then he would tell them about Attean" (25.35). Time to put your thinking cap on and do some digging. This line tells us gobs about Matt and how he's changed. From this sentence, we learn:

    • Matt's friendship with Attean runs deeper than a summer pal. He's the first thing he wants to talk about. Why? Because they are brothers, and because Attean changed Matt's way of seeing the world.
    • Matt feels it's necessary to teach his family what he learned from the Indians, which means these lessons aren't just personally important to Matt—he recognizes them as universally important too.

    Matt sure has grown up.

  • Setting

    The Maine Woods, off the Penobscot River

    The setting in this story—the Maine woods, off the Penobscot River—is more than just a pretty place to walk around and set up snares. In fact, it has a lot in common with the characters in the story. They are all in transition, changing or on the brink of doing so, but let's take a little stroll through the forest to find out how. Watch out for low-hanging branches.

    First of all, the beaver in these woods are almost trapped out. Though there used to be plenty around the support the various needs of the Beaver clan, the beaver's declining numbers are making this area no longer a good place for the clan to make their home. This means that the Beaver clan—like so many other American Indian groups—are slowly being forced out of the region.

    Which brings us to another transition. As white people come into the area—white people like, say, Matt and his family—they bring with them the concept of land ownership, a concept that stands in stark contrast to the practices of the Indians who lived there first. As Attean says, "Land same as air. Land for all people to live on" (22.21). So this woodland setting brings these two cultures right up against each other, and highlights both their differences and the tensions between them.

    And finally, white people aren't done coming. Not by a long shot. Matt's mom says more are on their way, and that they want to build a mill. Once this happens, this forest will not longer be the vast wilderness it is now and, because of this, will become even less hospitable to people like Attean and the Beaver clan who hunt and live off the land.

    On a more personal level, the forest is key to changes in both Matt and Attean's characters. Attean teaches Matt how to read the forest, to figure out his own way through the woods; combined with his lessons on trapping animals and carving weapons, this radically shifts Matt's relationship with his woodland surroundings. Suddenly Matty boy feels like he can handle himself.

    But Matt isn't the only one who is transformed by time spent in this forest—Attean is too. He heads off to find his manitou in the woods and, in doing so, comes into himself more fully and becomes a man.

    We're coming to the end of our walk. Bummer, right? It's definitely a major bummer for Attean and his folks. Why? Because though Attean says there is "much forest where sun go down. White man not come so far" (22.23) about his family's move west, Matt knows better. The wilderness everywhere is changing.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    Despite a few technical terms, reading this book is not too strenuous. The terms are simple, the action well-explained, there's no gore, and it's short. In other words, this book is perfect for an afternoon reading stroll.

  • Writing Style

    Simple, Detailed

    Speare wastes no time in telling this story. Her word choice is simple and direct, with very few fancy pants words to muddy up the way.

    However, her simplicity does not skimp on detail. Speare did her survival homework, and it shows in the details about everything from building a log cabin to loading a rifle to building a snare. She could probably write How to Survive in 18th-Century Maine for Dummies if she really wanted to. Take this description of stringing a bow for example:

    Carefully, Attean skimmed off the drops of oil that had risen to the surface [of Matt's fish stew]. He rubbed the oil from one end of the boy to the other till the bare wood glistened. Matt's frayed bit of string he cast aside. Instead he set about making a bowstring as he had made the snare, of long strands of spruce root. This took most of the morning as he patiently twisted the strands together, rolling them against his thigh to make them even and smooth.

    Finally he ties one end to a notch in the bow and began slowly to bend the wood. […] It seemed impossible that it would bend, but slowly it yielded, till the string slipped over the notch at the other end. The bow was finished. (12.10-11)

    The words may be simple, but the picture Speare paints is still super detailed.

  • Attean's Dog

    This mangy, unnamed mutt is more than just a pooch—he's Attean's sidekick, and we rarely see them without each other. So right away Attean's pup reminds us about how important loyalty is in this book, particularly to Attean.

    And speaking of loyalty, Attean's dog serves as a sort of barometer (that's a fancy way of saying gauge) in the book for Attean and Matt's willingness to trust and respect each other. Since Attean and Matt aren't fluent in the same language, the dog helps clue us into how their relationship is developing. Check out Matt's first impression of the mangy pup:

    Sometimes Attean brought an old dog with him. It was about the sorriest-looking hound Matt had ever seen, with a coat of coarse brown hair, a mangy tail, and whitish patches on its face that gave it a clownish look. Its long pointed nose was misshapen with bumps and bristles. By the look of its ears, it had survived many battles. The instant it spied Matt, a ridge of hair went straight up on its back and it let out a mean growl. Attean cuffed it sharply, and after that it was quiet, but it watched the white stranger with wary eyes and kept its distance. (11.7)

    It's early yet in Matt and Attean's relationship at this point, and in case we aren't sure whether they like each other or not, the pup makes it perfectly clear. The dog doesn't make a good first impression with Matt—it's described as "the sorriest-looking hound Matt had ever seen"—nor does it respond favorably to Matt, which it makes quite clear by growling as the hair rises on the back of its neck. And in case we thought race wasn't part of why Matt and Attean are reluctant to befriend each other, we are reminded that race is most definitely a factor because, to the dog, Matt is "the white stranger."

    Over the course of the book, though, Matt and Attean come to not only trust each other, but really respect each other. And since Attean's dog is a symbol for their relationship, it makes sense that a major turning point in their friendship centers around… Attean's dog.

    When Matt rescues Attean's dog from a trap, it isn't only the pup that is set loose—it's Attean and Matt's fondness for each other, too. Having impressed Attean's family—particularly his grandmother—with his willingness to save Attean's dog, Matt is welcomed into the Beaver clan's community and invited to come for a visit. As Matt prepares to make his way home, Attean's dog comes along to make sure we know that things are very different now. Attean and Matt head to the river and the dog:

    […] limped after them […], and when Matt stepped into the canoe the dog jumped in after him and settled down only a few inches from Matt's knees. He had never willingly come so close before.

    Yup—it's official: Attean and Matt are BFFs. Otherwise Attean's dog wouldn't have come to sit with Matt in the canoe.

    But Attean and Matt aren't just best buds for a little while. Though they have to part ways, these two have made a lasting impact on each other's lives over the course of their brief time together. And nothing makes this clearer than Attean's decision to give his dog to Matt before he heads away with the rest of the Beaver clan forever. Not convinced? In the same moment when Attean gifts his dog to Matt, he also calls him "white brother" (22.27). Aw.

    Attean's dog might be a battle-worn, ugly mutt, but he sure means a lot in this book—both to Attean and as a symbol.

  • The Sign of the Beaver

    Literally speaking, the sign of the beaver is a scratched pattern the Beaver clan uses to mark their territory. Symbolically, though, it lets other clans know not to hunt on the land it marks. Easy enough, right? It's the equivalent of a no trespassing sign on someone's property, and Indians from other clans get the message loud and clear when they see it. The only problem—and it's a pretty important problem—is that white people don't know about the signs, and most of those who do don't give a hoot. Uh-oh…

    Okay. So at least part of what the sign of the beaver symbolizes in this book is differences between white and Indian culture, and the very uncool way white folks generally interact with Indians. But let's break this symbol down piece by piece, shall we? And let's start with the beaver.

    Beaver pelts were some of the most valuable skins in the fur trade, and in the story, the beavers are disappearing, thanks to over-trapping by white people. And the thing about beavers disappearing is that they tend to take their fur with them. Go figure, right? This means that Indians are losing trading power. Here's a lesson in basic economics: no money = no good. So as the beavers disappear, so do the Indians.

    And that's not all. Among the American Indians, the clan signs are revered boundary laws. Case in point: When Attean sees a fox suffering in a steel trap, he refuses to save it because it's on Turtle land. Attean and his grandfather don't even like the cruel steel traps, but he's bound to follow the agreement between the clans. As for Matt however, "he couldn't understand the Indian code that left an animal to suffer just because of a mark on a tree" (13.22). Aye, there's the rub.

    Matt's response shows the general attitude white people have toward Indian customs, so though Matty boy does a better job than most white folks at keeping an open mind, in this moment we are reminded that as a rule white people aren't respecting clan signs. And that means trouble for the Indians, since these signs are basically law amongst them. Pro tip about laws: If enough people don't respect them, they don't do what they're supposed to.

    So the sign of the beaver symbolizes both the clan Attean comes from and the land they hunt on, but also clues us into some of the ways in which white people are threatening American Indians and their ways of doing things. It does one more thing, though, too: It reminds us that English—which Matt gives Attean lessons in—is only one language out of many. (Are you kind of excited by this idea? You'll definitely want to read what this lit professor has to say then.) And in doing so, we are subtly reminded that though Matt—a white, English-speaking male—is at the center of the book, there are plenty of other ways of doing things in this world.

  • Robinson Crusoe

    Before we get started, we want to make sure you're familiar with Robinson Crusoe. If you're not, hop on over to our summary for a moment to acquaint yourself with the book, and then hop back here to read up on what it represents in The Sign of the Beaver. We'll wait.

    (Too lazy to read that awesome summary we wrote? Here's the super short version: Robin Crusoe—the man, not the book—washes up on a desert island after his boat capsizes. He thinks he's all by his lonesome… until he stumbles upon a tribe of cannibals, that is. He saves the life of Friday, a cannibal who's about to end up a snack for his buddies, and then goes on to save the world (sort of). The end.)

    Okay, ready to focus on the book as a symbol now? Here goes.

    Robinson Crusoe tamed the elements to survive his tale, but he shares more than just wilderness adventures with our boys Matt and Attean. While reading the story to Attean, Matt realizes that even his umpteenth reading of the book can teach him more about himself (than he ever cared to know). Take a look at a few of his realizations:

    • Robinson Crusoe was kind of a jerk. Sure Crusoe and Friday became companions, but Friday swore to be Crusoe's slave, for Pete's sake. Attean makes his disgust over this development abundantly clear (freaking out and storming off tend to do that), which makes Matt rethink a lot of his own ideas. The result? Matt cuts out the part where Robinson Crusoe teaches Friday to call him master when he's reading to Attean—both to not upset his friend, but also because he realizes that this is pretty messed up.
    • The author of Robinson Crusoe passes unfair judgment on the Indians. After spending just a few days together, Attean has already taught Matt plenty—yet after months together on Friday's island, Crusoe's still the head honcho, which is neither right nor believable. Matt realizes"it would have been better perhaps if Friday hadn't been quite so thickheaded. After all, there must have been a thing or two about that desert island that a native who had lived there all his life could have taught Robinson Crusoe" (10.5). Matt's got a point there, and it's about time he came to this realization.
    • Robinson Crusoe is kind of a wimp. Sure he survives on a desert island, but his wrecked boat is loaded with survival gear. We're talking nails, a hammock, a dozen hatchets… As Matt tells himself, "Robinson Crusoe had lived like a king on that desert island!" (8.23). And what this means, is that the big R.C. isn't as heroic as Matt originally thought.
    • The most important this, though, is that Matt learns that what he's always believed—that the white man should lead other men—is not truly the way of things. He and Attean become friends—companions even, like Crusoe and Friday—yet "he and Attean sure enough turned that story right round about" (11.49). Attean is the skilled hunter and survivalist, while Matt blunders along after him, hoping for his respect.

    So what's the real truth behind the fiction? Exactly that: Robinson Crusoe and the stories it tells about race and surviving in the wilderness are fictitious. They're made up. And in The Sign of the Beaver, the book helps Matt come to understand all of this.

  • Dad's Watch

    When Matt's dad gives him his precious watch, Matt knows it is a really big deal, and he handles it "as gently as if it were a bird's egg" (1.11). This is no ordinary Swatch, folks—it belonged to Matt's grandpa and is "the finest thing his father had ever possessed" (1.15). So giving it to Matt shows both the love Matt's dad has for him and his trust in his son. By placing his watch in Matt's hands, he also places his trust in Matt to care for the home and property until he returns.

    So when Matt gives the watch to Attean, it's also a really big deal—when he thinks of parting with the watch, "Something twisted tight in his stomach" (22.31). But Attean has given him (1) his respect, (2) acceptance as his white brother, and (3) his prize possession, a.k.a his mangy, good-for-nothing dog.

    Matt knows the watch is the best he can do to show his friendship, respect, and gratitude to Attean, and even if Attean never needs to use it, Matt knows he'll treat the watch right. For Attean, the watch will always be a reminder of Matt and their unlikely friendship.

  • The Rifle

    When Matt's dad gives him the rifle, Matt knows the whole hold-down-the-fort-while-I'm-gone plan is for real. Eek. He also knows that his dad doesn't feel as hunky-dory about it as he pretends to. When he gives his son the pricey gun, he warns Matt not to "go banging away at everything that moves. Wait till you're dead sure. There's plenty of powder if you don't waste it" (1.19). These words remind Matt that he's still an immature kid, and his father feels "uneasy about leaving [him] […] alone" (1.20), so Matt vows to treat that rifle with respect. It is one way Matt can prove to his pa (and himself) that he's a man inside.

    The rifle doesn't last long under Matt's watch, though, and when Ben steals it from him, it's a painful reminder to both Matt and the reader that he's pretty much just a kind all alone in the woods. Though Matt will be able to survive on seafood, Ben has totally swiped his pride, and the poor kid is haunted by wondering what his father would say (3.59) if he were there. Of course, Matt's dad isn't there… which is why he has the rifle in the first place.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person, Limited

    Sign of the Beaver is written in the third person, which means our narrator sits outside the story and tells us what's going on. However, the narrator is limited, so they only give us Matt's perspective. It keeps us close to our main man—and helps engages us in the story—while also making sure there are plenty of surprises. Let's look at Matt's bee sting fiasco as an example:

    He could still not think clearly. Things seemed to keep fading before he could quite grasp them. He could not protest when the man lifted him again and carried him like a baby. It did not seem to matter where they were taking him, but shortly he found himself lying on his own bed in his own cabin. He was alone; the Indians had gone. (5.10)

    We have a really clear idea about how Matt's feeling, right? The poor kid is majorly struggling in this moment, and seriously unwell, and we are right there with him, foggy-brained and unclear about what's transpiring around him. Because of this, we—like Matt—don't yet know that the person carrying him is Saknis, nor do we know that Saknis will come back to make sure he's okay. In other words, we know enough to care… but not enough to not be surprised when Saknis returns the next day.

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition

    All By His Lonesome

    Matt's got a lot of alone time on his hands. His dad's headed back to Massachusetts to pick up his mom, sister, and the new baby, and Matt is left behind to guard home base. It's a little lonely at first, but Matt's not singing the blues for long, and soon he's singing a happy tune in his days of household chores, hunting, and planting. The stage is officially set for the rest of our story.

    Rising Action

    Beehive Brawl

    Matt's happy-go-lucky attitude swirls down the toilet (if he had one, that is) after the arrival of Ben. The wanderer not only helps himself to Matt's hospitality and dinner, but he takes off with his rifle. Adding insult to injury, Matt scuffles with a beehive, landing himself in a venom-induced coma.

    Saknis and his grandson, Attean, watch the beehive brawl and jump into the action in time to save his life. After that, Matt and Attean are forced to meet regularly for reading lessons, though this quickly turns into hunting/survival lessons for Matt, thanks to Attean's brainiac ways. Though they spend a bunch of time together, these two are hardly friends—it's a relationship of toleration.

    The boys' partnership comes in handy, though, when they come toe-to-toe with an angry mama bear. Working together, the boys manage to bring the bear down before it snacks on their insides. Phew. Such an act deserves a mighty party at the Indian camp, and Matt is invited. But all is not as rosy as it seems, and Attean tells Matt that his grandmother is not a fan of him, his presence, or any white people for that matter. Bummer.

    Climax

    Rescuing Rover

    Everything keeps on keeping on until we hit a turning point—otherwise known as the climax.

    Matt stumbles upon Attean's good-for-nothing pooch in the woods, and he's in a steel trap. Not good. The dog happens to hate Matt, so he can't get near him without losing a hand, but this doesn't deter Matt from saving the pup. He runs to the Indian camp to ask for help, but once he arrives Attean and his grandfather are not around… so Matt has to seek out Attean's grandmother. Gulp. Their interaction goes pretty smoothly, though, and thanks to Granny and Attean's sister, he frees the dog.

    Sounds simple enough, right? Turns out this act is a big deal. Attean, his sister, and especially his grandmother are flabbergasted. Who would put himself in danger for a fleabag dog? Thanks to this act, Attean's grandmother finally accepts Matt, and even invites him back to the camp. Matt feels like he belongs.

    Falling Action

    The End of an Era

    But it's not time for the closing credits yet. Even though Matt feels more accepted by the Indians, life is tough. His family hasn't returned yet, and they probably should have by now, and then Attean finds his manitou and becomes a man, so their carefree days are over. To top it all off, the Indians are leaving. For good.

    Attean and Saknis come by to invite Matt to join them, and Attean calls Matt his "white brother," but despite this super touching moment, Matt can't leave his family's land. He knows he needs to keep waiting for his family, and trusts that they will arrive, so though it pains him, he bids farewell to his friends. Attean and Matt give each other parting gifts, and it seems these boys who once only tolerated each other are officially BFFs for life.

    Resolution

    Wrapping Things Up

    Matt's decision to stay on his family's land causes three things to happen that wrap up the story in a nice little package:

    • He earns Attean's lifelong respect for staying true to his dad.
    • He's ready and waiting when his family shows up. That's right—they finally make it. Happy day.
    • He hears his dad tell him how proud he is of him, and it makes him feel like a trillion bucks.

    And so though Matt misses his friend, he knows he's made the right decision, and when the book ends, he is happily at home with his family once more. Yay.