The Sign of The Beaver tells the coming of age story of Matthew James Hallowell, a teenage boy left alone in the 18th century American wilderness to prepare his family's new land for habitation. At the beginning of the story Matt's father leaves him alone in the untamed wilderness of pre-colonial North America. Even though Matt is still a boy, his father entrusts him with the important task of preparing their new land for farming, hunting and gathering and building a log cabin for their family.
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Matt wants his father to stay and help, but he understands that his father must return to the coast to retrieve Matt's pregnant mother. Matt's father understandably wants the cabin and the land prepared by the time they arrive. At first, Matt is incapable of survival in this unfamiliar land. He doesn't know which plants to gather nor where the best places to hunt might be found. This all changes when he come across a young Native American boy about his same age named Attean.
After Matt's rifle is stolen by an old trapper, Matt is left without an effective hunting tool. In order to get something to eat, he climbs up a nearby tree to grab a honeycomb, but the bees swarm him and poison him with their stings. Matt escapes the bees, but is gravely sickened by their poison. Attean's grandfather, the chief of the local Native American tribe, helps nurse Matt back to health with local herbs. He agrees that Attean will teach Matt the customs of the tribe and how to live of the land if Matt will, in exchange, teach Attean to read and write. The bargain is struck and Matt and Attean become fast friends.
To replace Matt's rifle, Attean shows him how to make a bow and arrow. The two boys go out hunting together. They are confronted by a bear, but using teamwork they defeat the vicious animal. Soon after, Attean leaves to take part in a sacred rite known as Manitou. Manitou is a coming of age ceremony that Attean tries to explain to Matt. Because Matt is white he is not allowed to participate.
While Attean is gone, Matt whittles a cradle for his new baby sibling, assuming that the child will have already been born by the time his parents return. They arrive at the cabin just before Christmas. Unfortunately, Matt's sibling died during birth. Matt regrets not hiding the cradle so that his mother wouldn't be reminded of the death.
Matt's father is impressed with how well Matt maintained the cabin and the land. Matt resolves to tell his parents all about Attean after supper.
Best part of story, including ending:
A classic, if a bit slight, coming of age story. Matt's relationship with Attean is compelling if somewhat historically unlikely.
Best scene in story:
Matt and Attean are attacked by a large black bear in the forests of Maine. The two boys use teamwork and trust to kill the bear with their handmade bows and arrows.
Opinion about the main character:
Matt is a strong protagonist because his situation seems so dire. It's hard to imagine a young boy surviving on his own for so long in the wilderness. Watching Matt persevere is half the excitement of the book.