The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare

January 25, 2012 at 19:13 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , )


On the surface, this is just another shell of a book, with no other aim in sight than to persuade its (young) reader that they will not be good people until they learn to accept other people. Good literature can have a message behind it, but good messages cannot just wrap themselves in a plot and expect to be mistaken for good literature. And yet. Although there is very little depth in the hundred or so pages, and although we learn little about characters or scenarios, and even little about the differing way of life that the writer seems so eager to expound upon, there are the edges of a good story. Perhaps what this book needed was a little consistency. A villain with some flesh on him, or a grandmother not quite so generous and quick to forgive the white man. Maybe a touch of tragedy. The unfortunate thing is, despite some very promising starts, not much actually happens. The story gets as far as its first crisis and then resolves itself very suddenly and without any fuss whatsoever. And yet.

“‘…So I says, Ben, I says, you been plannin’ on gettin’ yourself some beaver pelts. Looks like now’s the time to get moving. I aim to settle in with the redskins a bit, maybe move on north.'”

-The Sign of the Beaver

There is something about that short, short story that we do manage to glimpse that sets this book just a little higher and makes it readable–and dare it be said?–enjoyable. Perhaps due to the skill of the writer (who despite her rather cynical and propagandistic methods has a warm and alluring style), or possibly due to its brevity (for with such a bland plot, even fifty pages longer might have been an unpardonable sin), this book does end up redeeming itself. It will seldom be useful as a favourite treasure to be taken down and read to fascinated children at bedtime. It may be doomed to bore children shackled to their desks, dogeared and foxed from unloved summers in the school library. But it might have a place as a comfortable read on a camping trip or an empty weekend in between books that aim for beauty and joy and excitement, rather than simply sermonising.


1 Comment

  1. David said,

    I do, in fact, remembering liking this in elementary school, but not exactly why. I didn’t love it, but remember it with a passive, mild fondness. Perhaps the shadow of a good story was enough for me back then, before I became quite so critical. I may even still own it, although from the sound of your review it may not be worth a reread, unless it were a very quick one.

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