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Review of the book: The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper
Books in order, or order of the books?
The Last of the Mohicans, that timeless classic set in the pre-Revolutionary days of our country is a work that countless individuals have read and has even been made into several films. The most recent features Madeline Stowe and Daniel Day-Lewis along with Wes Studi and Russell Means. If you haven't seen it, please do. It is excellent and features one of the most stunningly beautiful vistas and a wonderful soundtrack I have had the pleasure to enjoy.
But did you know it was only one of a series of five books written around a central character? Hawkeye, or La Longue Carabine as he is known to the Huron is actually named Nathaniel Bumppo and participates in a total of five novels authored by James Fenimore Cooper over a period of almost twenty years.
First in this series in time frame is The Deerslayer. Although the earliest in the chronological time period it was actually the final book written in the series. The first book written was The Pioneers in 1823, followed by The Last of the Mohicans in 1826; and The Prairie in 1827. There follows a lapse of thirteen years before The Pathfinder was published in 1840, followed in 1841 by The Deerslayer. Chronologically, the stories are as follows: The Deerslayer (1740-1755); The Pathfinder (1750's); The Last of the Mohicans (1757); The Pioneers (1793); and finally The Prairie (1804). If you do begin reading them I suggest you start with The Deerslayer as it is the first to introduce our man Natty Bumppo. In this manner you will be able to follow along as he moves from one to the next story/adventure.
Setting the scene
Our story begins with two men making their way through the forest primeval to the shores of a magnificent lake. Harry March, known to all as Hurry Harry is a man amongst men. Tall, strapping, fair to look at, strong as any three men put together and willing to tell you about his prowess. His companion is Natty Bumppo, a youth who has not yet set his feet upon the warpath yet there is something about him that lets you know he is a seasoned man of the forest even yet.
The Deerslayer, as he is known by his chosen family the Delaware indians, is a man who is known far and wide as perhaps the best shot with a rifle in the known country. Deadly accurate yet not one who shoots needlessly, Deerslayer (or Natty) is one who takes only that which he needs, displaying a sense of his teachers, the Delaware's. Waste not, want not could be his creed if creed he has.
We are introduced to this quickly as Hurry Harry attempts to shoot a deer and fails, to the gentle derision of his companion. Not one to flaunt his failures, Harry dismisses his poor shot as only trying to scare the deer. Hmm.
They come to the lake in order to meet Deerslayer's friend who is trying to regain his fair maiden Wah-ta-wah (known as Hist to the pale faces) who has been captured by the Huron Indians. Chingachgook, also known as The Sarpent (Serpent) is Deerslayer's best friend and brother of the Delaware tribe. A known location is the predestined meeting place for the two, with Harry along in order to meet his lady faire, Judith. Known far and wide as The Wild Rose, Judith is a beauty beyond compare in physical beauty yet may be somewhat lacking in the social decorum. She has a younger sister, Hetty, who is less striking to look at yet has a certain something about her. She is portrayed as being somewhat simple minded and honest as the day is long. Her inability to tell a falsehood comes into play a time or two during the storyline at critical junctures.
Their father, alternately known as The Muskrat by the Hurons and as Tom Hutter by the white men has a home built on stilts in the lake, thus creating a secure location for him to raise his daughters after their mother passed away. She was interred in the lake and is frequently visited by her simple minded daughter at times.
Once the group meets and come together, Tom and Hurry Harry decide to take some scalps on the excuse that a war is going on and the British are paying for scalps the same as the French are and why not partake in some of the gold lying around the lake in the person of a Huron tribe camping nearby as they are on the warpath anyway and would as soon take the white man's scalps; so turnabout should be fairplay.
Tom and Harry get captured and it is only through Deerslayer's intelligence that they are retrieved. But the Hurons are angry and when Deerslayer kills one of their most experienced braves in his first kill other that an animal, they plot to recapture the group. It must be noted here that the Huron was trying to kill Deerslayer at the same time. And that the dying brave was being cradled in Deerslayer's arms as he died, and in fact supplied the name that which he would forever be known as.
Yet even as they plot to capture those within Hutter's "castle" on the water, Deerslayer and Chingachgook sneak in and liberate Hist from under the nose of the Huron. And in the escape Deerslayer is captured and we expect him to suffer the consequences of his slaying the brave and freeing Hist. And the Huron do expect to do just that.
What follows is a wonderful tale that moves seamlessly from one scene to the next. Cooper recalls specific details from his youth and paints a vivid picture for the reader, creating a tale that will stay with one far beyond the close of the book.
We learn how Deerslayer gains the name of Hawkeye; and we also learn why he becomes a hated (though revered) enemy by the Huron tribe. We are told a tale that is full and flush with sublayers and story plots enough to fill more than this single tale. We know Hawkeye survives, as he returns in The Last of the Mohicans, as does Chingachgook, but the question of how he survives is fraught with danger and excellent storytelling skills.
I will relay one tidbit here that takes place near the end of the book. I will not say who this relates to, only will I say that one death scene reminds me greatly of Melanie's death in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind in that is is done tastefully yet is so heartbreaking. I found myself thinking of that scene time and again as I read of this death and how it related to those beside the bed.
There is another in this tale who felt and thought highly of themselves yet when their true persona is revealed they are found to be far less than one was led to believe. They do have a chance to redeem themselves and much like the Major in Mohicans, comes through in the end.
Over all, this story impressed me greatly and it is easy to tell why the Leatherstocking Tales became the beginning of what came to be called Western's in the literary world. It is like nothing that came before it, and all subsequent works relating to this genre have been compared to them. Romantic it may be to those of us in today's world yet for its time it was far more. To me, these works tell the story of our country before it truly became a country, when we sided with the British against the French, and later when the French sided with us against the British. The country described in the wonderful words of Cooper is a country lost to our generations and those to follow. I hope we never lose sight of these words even if the inspiration behind them is lost.
In closing let me reference the words of another of my favorite authors, Norman Maclean. In his work A River Runs Through It, he states that his years growing up in Montana were spent in a world with dew still upon it. While I hesitate to refute his words, Hawkeye spent his time living in just such a world, and to me this one was far fresher than the one Maclean lived in. Few there were that lived on this continent at that time though ever larger became the number during his lifetime until in the end, there was nowhere for the old frontiersman to turn.
Perhaps someday I will be fortunate enough to travel to upstate New York and see for myself what remains of Hawkeye's country. To walk among the forests and along the streams that Cooper portrays will be a dream come true, now that I have discovered such a dream.
Perhaps, you will discover this wonder as well. Take your time, struggle (as I did) with the ancient wording and sentence structure of some two hundred years ago and enjoy such a timeless tale as the Leatherstocking Tales are. Fair reading, my friends.