It was my first time enjoying the book with my youngest child, but I’d done so more than once with each of my older two. I knew the novel well: its slow build; its complex, painful evocation of the 18th-century encounter between struggling European pioneers and indigenous Americans resisting their communal destruction with dignity, rage, despair. This fresh reading promised much, but I expected no surprises.
Then, halfway through the book, I came to this passage:
Just as the last light was glinting above the treetops, they reached a river bank. Drawn up at its edge was a small birch canoe. Attean motioned him to step into it. Then he gave a push and leaped nimbly into the stern. His paddle moved soundlessly. Grateful to sit still, Matt was entranced by the speed, the silence, the gliding shadows on the silver river. He was regretful when in a very few strokes they reached the other side.
I felt cold chills down my arms. I thought, “I’ve been here.” I could see those gliding shadows, not just because the author made them beautifully clear. I had paddled that narrow slip of river.
I’d never thought about the book’s precise locale. At the start of this reread, I’d been surprised to be reminded that it was Maine land the fictional Matt and his family lay claim to. Did it matter exactly where this frontier story took place? Suddenly, it did.
I broke off reading and told my daughter I had to research something.
The book was published in 1983. I didn’t expect to find an easy explanation for my uncanny recognition, not without digging. I typed in “The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare.” The information came right up: The book was a story about the town of Milo, Maine. Our family-favorite novel was set in a family-favorite place. The book hadn’t changed in the years since I read it to my oldest child. I had.
My new husband took me to his house in Milo without expecting me to like it. Once supported by water-powered mills and industry, the Piscataquis County town, pop. 2,300, has been economically marginal for decades. I’d seen no photos of the old farmhouse my husband bought for a song when he was an urban dweller, and the remote location offered affordable summers for a young family. He hadn’t told me much about Milo, and what he’d said wasn’t the stuff getaway dreams are made of. He talked about black flies and roughing it. He’d renovated much of the house himself under the tutelage of neighbors as exigencies arrived: A roof collapsed, a kitchen flooded.
Milo wasn’t an obvious destination for a native New Yorker whose present normal is a small New England college town. I have rural life here at home; I don’t need to drive five or six hours north to find it. Yet I was mysteriously certain I wanted to be there. So much so that the first time we arrived, late at night, I walked into the kitchen and shrugged: “Oh yeah, I love it.” There was never a second thought.
The next morning I saw the river coiling gracefully through the trees north and south as far as I could see. It was picture-perfect in the bitter cold, perhaps much the same as when the Penobscot skimmed it in birch canoes.
More temperate visits have brought the river’s pleasures closer. Across a few yards of scratchy grass and down the long aluminum stairs is the slippery clay riverbank. Sometimes my children swim in water that’s never warm enough for me. Best of all, we push off in the canoe. We might work our way upstream for an hour or two and let the current bring us home in minutes. Some seasons we find ourselves in water so shallow we’re grounded in silt. Other times the bottom is far below.
I’ve never been a boat person. Paddling the Pleasant River is an unexpected gift, the dual sense of purpose and repose seeming to deepen every time I enter the current.
“The Sign of the Beaver” isn’t set just anywhere. On a visit to Maine, Speare, who died in 1994, came upon a historical account at the Milo public library of one of the town’s first European settlers, a boy who survived his first Maine winter with the help of native people whose cultural decimation he surely represented. It’s a story of tentative personal connection and tragic collective detachment. Its teenage protagonists, Attean and Matt, can’t escape their moment in history. They can only share a moment of peace, paddling the river.
I can’t help wondering if I loved Milo on sight because of years of reading this book, or if my attachment to “The Sign of the Beaver” was a presentiment of the connection I would feel when I arrived.