August 14 – 20, 2020Vol. 22, No. 10

Sign of the Beaver

by Martha F. Barkley

Wouldn't you know, but I just found a Downeast Magazine list of Maine 100 Reads and this young adult book by Elizabeth George Speare was on it. The Sign of the Beaver is full of Maine territory tales between Matt, age 13, and his new Indian friend Attean.

I stopped by Oliver and Friends Bookshop to chat with owner Renee. She was reading some children's lit, so I went to the Maine shelves and grabbed this Newberry Honor Book. It is full of intricate details with Attean teaching Matt survival skills. Attean's grandfather had arranged for Matt to teach his grandson to read.

Left alone to maintain their new cabin built by Matt and his dad, Matt experiences months and months in the wild and has some frightening visitors while he is surviving by himself for too long. Quincy, Mass. was where Matt's dad was going to bring back the family and new born.

This is the young adult novel for our Maine state bicentennial year, 1820-2020. Settlers in the Maine territory, like Matt's family in 1768, were tired of Boston ruling the North Woods. The Quincy home was more elaborate, but Matt's family preferred to set out north on their own to the Maine woods, buying land for their cabin.

One summer I drove from Belgrade to Quincy because the John Adams homes and museum were part of my reading in David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize biography of John Adams. When I walked down to the crypt with John and Abigail's burial site and also John Quincy, their son, and his wife, Louise Catherine, my emotions overwhelmed me.

Breathing the salty air on the coast in Quincy and seeing Boston at a distance felt like history in your face for sure. Abigail climbed the hill with her son John Quincy to see the fighting in Boston during the Revolutionary War.

Abigail and John Quincy both had their smallpox treatment when it was quite experimental in Boston, getting sick with a mild case for many. Inoculation was very much unknown at the time, but the Adams were forward thinking people and bravely went ahead with John Adams encouragement from far away.

He was away from Quincy for years serving his country while Abigail maintained the Quincy farm. He served in the shifting Capitol cities and abroad in London and Paris. Abigail joined her husband in Paris for a few of those long long years separated.

Matt was left alone in Maine to finish the inside of their newly built cabin and prepare for winter when his mother and sister would arrive. Much to do and daily hunting with his father's prized gun helped to prevent starvation. A bear invasion startles him upon arriving back from hours of hunting. A stranger's overnight visit also harms Matt.

Fortunately, he was watched and saved by an elderly Indian, when Matt could have drowned. Becoming friends with Attean, the grandson, was slow in the daily lessons of learning English. Attean seemed uninterested, but he did what his grandfather had arranged with Matt. Trudging toward the cabin daily and lackluster, stoic staring at the ABCs, until Matt started reading Robinson Crusoe to him: now that seemed more interesting!

The skillful making of animal snares, fishing with a spear, making snowshoes and everything else, were shared by Attean in return for his daily English lessons. The gradual bonding and rescuing of Attean's dog from the white man's trap helped bring the boys to an understanding of each other.

Finally, after many weeks, Matt was guided to Attean's settlement through the woods and across the river. How good the warm food and rest were for Matt after so many months alone. He returned to his cabin and waited once again for his family from far away Quincy.

Where were they? The allotted months his dad had estimated were up.

The maple trees circling the clearing flamed scarlet. The birches and aspens glowed yellow, holding sunlight of their own even on misty days. The woods had become quieter…In the morning, when he stepped out of the cabin, the frosty air nipped his nose…It seemed to him that day by day the shadow of the forest moved closer to the cabin.

Read this 135-page novel for young adults and enjoy our Maine history when this beautiful land was a territory, still part of Massachusetts. Joseph Bruchac provides an informative introduction for parents, especially, explaining controversial usage of Wabanaki words and other inaccuracies. The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Bronze Bow were Newberry Medal winners by this fine author Elizabeth George Speare.

Attean was also the name of the Penobscot guide for Henry David Thoreau. We drove to view Attean Lake and my husband boated to Attean Island resort years ago where the black flies were biting. Attean Lake Lodge is still in business…photos look like I remember it when we stopped by. Another Maine venture!

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