Thursday, February 11, 2016

Book Review: The Deerslayer

 © 1841 by James Fenimore Cooper

I liked this book but, man, did it really, really, really try my patience.

Over the span of around fifteen years in the early part of the 19th century, James Fenimore Cooper wrote five novels about the ever-expanding American frontier. He wrote other stories, too, particularly sea stories, that being his original background, but he’s most famous for these five books, known as the “Leatherstocking Tales.” They range in setting from colonial New York in the 1740s to the Midwest of the Louisiana Purchase sixty years later, though they were not written or published in the chronological order of the stories themselves. They made Cooper a famous and wealthy man.

The stories all revolve around a single Daniel Boone-like frontiersman, a man born of white parents but raised by the Delaware Indians. He goes by many names throughout the books: Natty Bumppo, the Deerslayer, Hawkeye, the Pathfinder, Leatherstocking, to name the most popular. If you’ve ever seen Daniel Day Lewis in 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans, well, that’s him.

In The Deerslayer, we experience some of the earliest adventures of our hero, side by side with his close friend, Indian prince Chingachgook. The last book to be written but the first chronologically, it is subtitled “The First War Path.”

My main issue with the novel, and it’s not unique to me (it famously goes back at least as far as Mark Twain), is that it is so freakin’ wordy! This is a 662-page paperback novel that any other competent western writer, say Louis L’Amour, could pound out in 165 lean and mean pages. And those 165 pages would have just as much – if not more – character development and definitely more suspense. Cooper’s novel took me 23 days to read. Had L’Amour wrote it I’d probably finish it in two. Maybe even one if I stayed up past midnight cause I couldn’t put it down.

But the hyperverbosity really was the only thing I hated about the book. Granted, it’s a big thing, but it’s not a deal breaker. I like to rush from book to book to book, wringing the best mind-blowing experiences out as possible from each, ever on the hunt for the next big vicarious fix. You might be different. If you savor a story, soak in the setting, bask in the time travel back to the age of our forefathers, then James Fenimore Cooper might be your thing. There were long spells in the book I did enjoy, such as pages and pages of description of an upstate New York past and never to be regained. Other spells, such as every single character having to give a ten-page farewell speech, well, that just grated on me.

The book opens with a pretty evocation of the colonial wilderness, as Deerslayer and his friend Henry March are hiking up to Glimmerglass Lake, Deerslayer to meet his pal Chingachgook and March to visit a trapper named Tom Hutter. Hutter’s built an impressive house-slash-fort in the middle of the lake, accessible only by canoe, sick of being harassed by the Indians. Though, truth be told, Hutter himself does more than his own share of harassing back, which does end up getting him in a heap of trouble. More enticing to Henry March is Hutter’s beautiful young daughter, Judith. Judith also has a “feeble-minded” sister (“feeble-minded” as an adjective occurs dozens of times in the novel) named Hetty who basically becomes a saint by the end of the tale.

Anyway, March and Hutter get captured scalp huntin’ by a passing band of Huron Indians, leaving Deerslayer and Judith to find a way to rescue them. That way is fairly prosaic, as they offer the Hurons some carved ivory chess pieces as ransom. Chingachgook shows up, seeking to free his princess fiancée, also a captive of the Huron. During a rescue attempt, Deerslayer is captured and Hutter is scalped. March shows himself the cad he is, and Hetty walks among the Huron (they don’t hurt the “feeble-minded”) spouting Bible verses in an effort to free Deerslayer. The Huron do allow the lad a furlough before he is to be tortured to death. Back at the island house, Judith falls in love with our hero, out of love with March, and discovers her father’s true identity. Being a man of solid word, Deerslayer returns to the Huron camp the next morning to face his imminent death. Can Judith, Hetty, Chingachgook and his bride-to-be rescue the valiant man? They sure can, with unexpected help, over the long course of 150 pages.

I must say I did enjoy the anti-PC feel to the book, particularly in depicting the Indians as – gasp! – villains. Trigger warnings and fainting couches must be supplied to our current crop of collegiate literature majors, provided they are even allowed to read Cooper these days at a college level. Cooper’s Injuns are, it seems to me, fairly accurate in a non-sugar-coated way, a whole plethora of microaggressions to those not even passingly familiar with the ways and means of a Neo-Stone Age hunter/predator culture.

A little over twenty years ago, purely on a whim, I read a couple of chapters of The Pathfinder, another novel of the Leatherstocking series, and really only because I was bored and found it in my grandparent’s basement. Don’t remember much of it. Would I read another one? I dunno. Probably not. Not to say I regret reading Deerslayer. I do enjoy these sorts of tales, and after seeing Leonardo as Hugh Glass in The Revenant the book nearly jumped off the shelf into my arms. If I can find a Leatherstocking novel under 250 pages, I might consider it.

Grade: C+

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