The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare is a coming of age book set in Maine in the late 1700s. Matt and his family are settling in the area. His father came with the 12-year-old boy to clear the land, build a rough house, and plant crops before heading back to get the rest of the family. Matt was left alone with some provisions, a gun, and a couple of books to protect the house and grow the crops until the family returned. Matt kept track of time by carving notches on sticks.
A man visits and ends up stealing Matt's gun. Matt can no longer hunt and then has bears eat much of the stored provisions. In an attempt to procure honey, he is stung numerous times and needs medical attention. A few Penobscot Indians in the area that have been watching him all along help him, bring him food, and provide some assistance. In return for this kindness, Matt offers the book Robinson Crusoe to the Penobscot elder. The elder in turn would like Matt to teach his grandson to read. Thus begins a rocky friendship as the boys grow and learn together. Attean, the Penobscot boy, teaches Matt to make snares, how to read "signs" in the woods, and other methods of procuring food, such as using a wooden hook for fishing.
This last week I brought several artifacts related to the book into a Bristol Elementary School from Woodlawn Nature Center, my own collection, and a good friend's collection who is Native American and does period reenactments. While I have read, listened to, and even watched the corresponding movie several times, I listened to the book again, listening for the nature connections.
The children had many questions and made several connections. We felt several furs, talked about the many types of animals mentioned in the book, and even discussed these animals in the local area, as well as natural places they may want to visit. In talking about the beaver, I was showing a rodent skull and discussed the unique characteristics of rodent teeth, with the harder orange portion on the outside and the softer portion on the inside. One girl astutely remarked that's how they have razor sharp teeth as the softer portion wears away more quickly.
The children were able to touch the many artifacts and have a sensory experience to the written words of the book. They could touch a red fox's fur, feel a bear's claw, try the process of grinding corn, look at animal tracks, etc. We also looked at the basic structure of a wigwam and I encouraged the children to visit the wigwam at Woodlawn Nature Center.
We also talked about some of the historical inaccuracies in the book and characteristics of the Penobscot Indians. I find the book a compelling story and while there may be some inaccuracies, I find these to be great talking points in the discussion of the book. This was a great way to celebrate finishing the book!