Saturday, September 29, 2012

James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer


Opening Passage:

On the human imagination events produce the effects of time. Thus, he who has travelled far and seen much is apt to fancy that he has lived long; and the history that most abounds in important incidents soonest assumes the aspect of antiquity. In no other way can we account for the venerable air that is already gathering around American annals. When the mind reverts to the earliest days of colonial history, the period seems remote and obscure, the thousand changes that thicken along the links of recollections, throwing back the origin of the nation to a day so distant as seemingly to reach the mists of time; and yet four lives of ordinary duration would suffice to transmit, from mouth to mouth, in the form of tradition, all that civilized man has achieved within the limits of the republic. Although New York alone possesses a population materially exceeding that of either of the four smallest kingdoms of Europe, or materially exceeding that of the entire Swiss Confederation, it is little more than two centuries since the Dutch commenced their settlement, rescuing the region from the savage state. Thus, what seems venerable by an accumulation of changes is reduced to familiarity when we come seriously to consider it solely in connection with time.

Summary: The shadow cast by the past looms over practically the whole of The Deerslayer, despite the fact that much of the story is told in a vivid and present detail. We ourselves are made by the narrator to look back at the story as a distant thing, half-obscured by forgetfulness and legend; this is the very first thing the narrator does in the book, and the very last, and repeatedly through the story we are reminded that the narrator is conveying a story that has long since happened. All of the major characters in the story have a past, too, and are bound by that past, which is their gift and their limitation; except possibly for Hetty, whose simplicity intimates eternity, no character breaks free of the boundaries set by a past established long before. This is an interesting feature of the book, given that the plot itself requires none of this entanglement of past and present. The plot is all about the immediacy of friendship and youthful adventure, and the mix of the two gives the book a somewhat melancholy and nostalgic tone, perpetually suggesting might-have-beens that in reality could never be.

The story opens in the early 1740s on Otsego Lake in New York. Natty Bumppo, a.k.a. Deerslayer, is travelling with Harry March, a.k.a. Hurry Harry, who is serving as a sort of guide. Deerslayer is bound to meet his Indian friend Chingachgook, the Great Serpent of the Mohicans; the two young men will be on their first warpath together. The mission is quite important: Chingachgook's bride-to-be, Wah-ta-Wah, a.k.a. Hist, has been kidnapped by a group of Hurons who have come out of French Canada to collect white scalps. As it happens Hurry Harry is himself bound to meet up with Thomas Hutter, a man with a mysterious past, precisely to take Huron scalps. We are not quite to the French and Indian War, but things are beginning to heat up as the British and the French each pay for blood. Thomas Hutter turns out to live in a castle of logs in the middle of the lake, and to travel around in a sort of houseboat called the 'ark'; a very striking setting. He also has two daughters, Judith and Hetty. Beyond that the story ends up being somewhat less than straightforward as each side tries to outmaneuver the other. The chase scenes in particular are quite good, and, interestingly, I think Cooper's leisurely style contributes to this. Cooper's books are notorious for being slow-moving when nothing is happening; but precisely this makes it possible for him to pack every adventure and chase scene with an extraordinary amount of action and detail, without any shift of style. It is not the solution to the problem of action that most people would take today, but it deserves a bit more respect than it usually gets. Cooper can do things with chase scenes that almost no one else ever manages, precisely because of his quirks.

Cooper also often takes a lot of flak for his women, and one can hardly get through a chapter here without some comment about feminine sentiment or the feelings of the more gentle sex, but the female characters themselves are done very well. Almost half of the major characters are women; they each are noticeably different personalities but are each in their own way unflinching in the face of danger. Wah-ta-Wah, the Delaware girl, is quite impressive. She is the original damsel in distress, and is quiet and reserved, but she easily has the most astute mind in the book; her quick thinking saves people several times. Judith and Hetty are as brave as their Biblical namesakes. For a brief moment they all shine. Every character, in fact, is interesting in his or her own right, and, despite their many faults, one ends up sympathizing with most of them, even the Hurons, who, however cruel, have their own kind of honor. They all shine.

And then they are gone. We know something of the fate of some of the characters -- Hetty here and Chingachgook, Natty Bumppo, and Wah-ta-Wah from the other books in the series. Much of it is harsh. Of Judith's final fate we never learn, and as the narrator coolly reminds us, no matter how curious we are, in the end it is none of our business nor anyone else's. All that remains is the story.

Favorite Passage: In this passage, Judith and Hetty are trying to escape from the Hurons by canoe.

As yet the Indians had not been able to get nearer to the girls than two hundred yards, though they were what seamen would term "in their wake"; or in a direct line behind them, passing over the same track of water. This made the pursuit what is technically called a "stern chase", which is proverbially a "long chase": the meaning of which is that, in consequence of the relative positions of the parties, no change becomes apparent except that which is a direct gain in the nearest possible approach. "Long" as this species of chase is admitted to be, however, Judith was enabled to perceive that the Hurons were sensibly drawing nearer and nearer, before she had gained the centre of the lake. She was not a girl to despair, but there was an instant when she thought of yielding, with the wish of being carried to the camp where she knew the Deerslayer to be a captive; but the considerations connected with the means she hoped to be able to employ in order to procure his release immediately interposed, in order to stimulate her to renewed exertions. Had there been any one there to note the progress of the two canoes, he would have seen that of Judith flying swiftly away from its pursuers, as the girl gave it freshly impelled speed, while her mind was thus dwelling on her own ardent and generous schemes. So material, indeed, was the difference in the rate of going between the two canoes for the next five minutes, that the Hurons began to be convinced all their powers must be exerted or they would suffer the disgrace of being baffled by women. Making a furious effort under the mortification of such a conviction, one of the strongest of their party broke his paddle at the very moment when he had taken it from the hand of a comrade to relieve him. This at once decided the matter, a canoe containing three men and having but one paddle being utterly unable to overtake fugitives like the daughters of Thomas Hutter.

Recommendation: It's not a book for swift reading, and it builds slowly, but it becomes more and more interesting as it goes. Highly recommended.

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