Monday, April 22, 2013

The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper

A lackluster prequel to The Last of the Mohicans
Originally published in 1841, The Deerslayer was the last book written by James Fenimore Cooper in his series of five novels known as the Leatherstocking tales. In terms of the narrative sequence of the series, however, it is chronologically the first installment in the story line. The five historical adventure novels which comprise the Leatherstocking saga all relate episodes in the life of Nathaniel Bumppo, a hunter and trapper in colonial America who, though a white man, lives among the Native Americans. Bumppo is known by many names throughout the five books, but in this first volume he is primarily referred to by the appellation of Deerslayer.

The novel takes place in the early 1740s in New York State. Deerslayer and his traveling companion “Hurry Harry” arrive at a secluded, placid lake where resides the Hutter family. Thomas Hutter has built a house on piles in the center of the lake, known as the “castle,” where he lives with his two daughters—Judith, who is renowned for her incomparable beauty, and Hetty, who is considered simple-minded. The family also travels the lake’s waters in a sort of houseboat called the “ark”. While Hurry has come to the lake to court Judith, Deerslayer has come to rendezvous with his friend Chingachgook, a Delaware Indian. At this early point in Deerslayer’s life, he is renowned for his hunting skills but has never killed a man. As war has been recently declared between the British and French, along with their Indian allies, the two young friends have come together to embark on their first warpath, in hopes of proving themselves as warriors.

The lake is besieged by a band of Huron Indians, who are loyal to the French. They capture members of Deerslayer’s party, and he and his remaining companions strive to rescue them. The scope of the story never expands beyond the lake. Characters move back and forth from the castle to the ark to the shore as characters are captured, rescued, or recaptured. It reads very much like an action movie—a sort of 18th century Die Hard—yet its one of the slowest, most tedious adventure tales you’ll ever encounter. The action sequences consist of Cooper delineating the trajectory of every boat and bullet with a fastidious attention to detail that dulls much of the excitement. Such scenes are interspersed with long conversations between the characters, which mostly serve the purpose of contrasting their personal philosophies. The last half of the book focuses on an impending doom which threatens Deerslayer, yet, since this is a prequel, the fact of his survival is never really in question.

The colonial period of American history is a truly fascinating time, and Cooper is our best literary chronicler of the era. His narrative voice is an enjoyable combination of the skillfully crafted prose of a distinguished man of letters and the campfire tales of a rugged frontiersman. Unfortunately, one wishes he were a better plotter. Unlike his masterpiece The Last of the Mohicans, this novel shows little sign of a preconceived structure. It seems as if Cooper just started with chapter one and made it up as he went along. The result is an awful lot of boring passages and redundant dialogue.

Though not a great book in its own right, the true value of The Deerslayer lies in its position within the Leatherstocking saga. Much is revealed about the character of Natty Bumppo—how he fared in his first experience with combat, how he earned the name of “Hawkeye,” and how he acquired his famous rifle Killdeer. Cooper deeply delves into the Deerslayer’s personal moral philosophy, which resembles a sort of frontier Samurai code. The five Leatherstocking books unquestionably constitute a monumental achievement in American literature. The Deerslayer is certainly not the best book in the series, but in light of its being part of a greater whole it does deserve to be read.

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