Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper

Hardly a grand finale
The Prairie is the fifth and final episode in the life of James Fenimore Cooper’s inimitable character Natty Bumppo, also known by the names of Hawkeye, Deerslayer, Pathfinder, Leatherstocking, and here referred to simply as the trapper. Although this is the conclusion of the Leatherstocking Tales, it was actually the third book to be published, in 1827, following The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans. The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder were prequels published over a decade later. The Prairie is set in 1805, at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Natty has beaten them to the punch, however, having already walked to the Pacific Ocean and back. Now in his 80s, he can no longer hunt like he used to, but still makes a living off the land through fur trapping. The story takes place on the Great Plains about five hundred miles west of the Mississippi. The Platte River is mentioned, so one might assume the events occur in what is now Nebraska.

A small wagon train of settlers makes their way across the prairie, primarily composed of the extensive family of Ishmael Bush, a Kentucky man escaping the confines of civilization for the lawless freedom of the West. The ocean of grass they encounter is more desolate than the party bargained for. When they happen upon the trapper, he offers welcome aid in finding them a suitable campsite equipped with water and wood. The party has little time to enjoy their repose, however, as they are soon attacked by a party of hostile Sioux Indians, also referred to as Tetons, who steal their cattle and horses and leave them stranded on the plains.

Although with the exception of the trapper and his dog, none of the characters here have appeared in previous volumes of the series, they all feel a bit familiar to frequent readers of Cooper. There’s the cantankerous patriarch with the weakness of hubris (Bush); the spunky and intelligent yet demure young woman (Ellen Wade, Bush’s niece); the boisterous, affable, and strapping outdoorsman (Ellen’s boyfriend Paul Hover, a beekeeper); and the pompous intellectual blowhard who provides comic relief (Dr. Obed Bat, a naturalist and makeshift physician). In typical Cooper fashion, introducing all the characters can be a long and somewhat arduous process, but once the scene is populated he then interposes little mysteries to pique the reader’s interest. What is Bush concealing in his tent? Why exactly did he flee Kentucky? Who is this young soldier who suddenly makes an appearance on the plains? Revealing the answers to these questions requires more flashbacks than a Tarantino movie, and Cooper’s thesaurus-wringing prose doesn’t offer much aid in alleviating confusion. With Cooper’s writing, as Natty would say, “it is as hard to find sense in his speeches, as to discover three eagles on the same tree.” If you’ve made it to this fifth book, however, chances are you’ve already grown tolerant of Cooper’s antiquated prose and fitful plotting and have come to realize that there’s a certain delectable charm to it.

The Prairie is not a bad book, but there’s nothing particularly good about it either. It feels as if Cooper is just going through the motions, covering ground he’s already trod. This novel is nowhere in the same league as The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans, and only manages to rise to the less-than-stellar heights of The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer. Compared to the other books in the series, this one seems overly bogged down in pointless talkiness, with less action and less of Bumppo’s sagacious frontier-samurai philosophy. Still, the Leatherstocking Tales are the first monumental achievement in American literature, and I would wholeheartedly recommend the series to any lover of classic literature, even though the finale may prove less than grand.

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