________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 13. . . .February 20, 2009.


The First Beaver.

Caroll Simpson.
Surrey, BC: Heritage House, 2008.
32 pp., hardcover, $24.95.
ISBN 978-1-89497450-9.

Subject Heading:
Beavers-Juvenile fiction

Grades 1-6 / Ages 6-11.

Review by Chris Laurie.





In the olden days, before you were born, the arms of Mother Earth embraced a valley with mammoth cedar trees. The music of falling water and the song of the red-winged blackbird echoed in the giant forest.

The animals watched the First People as they built their longhouses. Food was plentiful, and the people were happy. One day a child was born to a clan in the village. Raven, Bear, and Eagle watched over this child of nature as everyone came to see her.

Her grandmother said, “Her hair is not the colour of Raven; it is the colour of the winter reeds! We must call her Reedee.”

The First People worked by the light from the sun and the fire. At night, everyone slept – everyone except Reedee! When darkness fell, she disappeared into the forest.

Where did she go?

     internal artThe First Beaver is an adaptation of a number of ‘first beaver’ tales that author and illustrator Caroll Simpson has gathered from Canada’s northwest coast. Simpson discovered her love for traditional cultures at an early age (she made her first moccasins at the age of nine), and went on to teach Native art and drama for many years. She now spends much of her spare time writing and painting at her lakeside lodge in British Columbia’s northern interior. She sees her work as a celebration of the legends and art of the regions First Peoples.

     During the last several years, she has run across at least four variations of this story, all containing some common elements, including the character’s gender, the colour of Reedee’s hair, and details like Reedee’s apron becoming her tail.

     The tale of young Reedee is told here. Like many figures of myth, she is considered different from the rest of her people. She was born with brown hair; much lighter than that of the other villagers, and at night, while the others sleep, Reedee disappears into the forest. One day, she overhears the village elders discussing how a drought is affecting their water and food supplies. After Reedee disappears into the forest again that night, her family discovers a large basket of berries, a basket of water, and stacks of firewood beside Reedee in the morning. The following night, Reedee’s father follows her into the forest, but when he comes to a lake, Reedee’s trail vanishes, and no-one answers his calls. “Only the music of the night replied: frogs croaked, bugs buzzed, and the loon called out.” The following night, Reedee’s mother tries to keep her at home, but her mother falls asleep and dreams of her daughter swimming in the moonlight. In the morning, Reedee is gone. Her father goes back to the lake that night in an effort to discover what has become of her. When he falls into the lake and is caught by something under the water, he discovers in the tale’s satisfying conclusion the answer to the mystery that was his daughter.

     Simpson has used just enough text to tell Reedee’s story while drawing in readers. The wise use of text and strong story provides a good balance to Simpson’s colourful and resonant paintings, the result of years of study and practice.

     Each double-page spread of this colourful picture book includes a painting by Simpson which depicts the flora and fauna of the region as well as details of everyday life, such as traditional clothing, totem poles, and activities. Detailed descriptions of the intricate crests framing each page’s text are given at the back of the book, and this information will provide a valuable resource for students. I enjoyed reading about the history of each crest and then turning back to that page in the book to see how the crest related to that part of the tale.

     I would like to have seen a preface to this story with more specific information about the identity of the people and region from which this tale was adapted, as well as the cultural context and significance the story had to those people. Additionally, as the cultural accuracy of folktales is vital, I would also like to have seen more information on Simpson’s authority (and thus, perspective) in retelling this native tale.

     Still, Caroll Simpson’s The First Beaver is a strong adaptation of a First Peoples tale. I would recommend it to anyone interested in Canadian folktales, as well as to libraries wishing to build their folktale collection.


Chris Laurie is a Youth Services Librarian at Winnipeg Public Library in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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