THE LEATHERSTOCKING TALES ... IN REVIEW
... by Gayle Clark
The set of five historical novels known as The Leatherstocking Tales is a complex and adventure-packed trip into the lush and unpredictable wilderness of 18th Century America. The thread which ties the five books together is the life story of a rugged and untamable hunter, Indian fighter and American scout for the British military. Each book of The Leatherstocking Tales showcases a different phase of the myriad struggles to settle and control this vast and resource-rich land.
The Deerslayer takes place on Otsego Lake, the current site of Cooperstown, New York. Set in 1743, long before James Fenimore Cooper's family established the first settlement at the southern end of the lake, the story brings the young hunter, Nathaniel Bumppo, and his Delaware brother, Chingachgook, to the lake to rescue Chingachgook's bride-to-be from a Iroquois war party. They enlist themselves in a bloody battle to protect a family of settlers from the Iroquois, and the resulting scenes are dramatic and suspenseful, as loves and scalps are won and lost.
The Last of The Mohicans is the universal favorite and best known of the series. Cooper builds the story around the historic massacre at Fort William Henry on the shores of Lake George. Natty Bumppo, now in his thirties and known by his Indian name of Hawkeye, joins forces with Chingachgook and Chingachgook's son Uncas to save the lives of the daughters of the fort's commanding officer. Numerous exciting and complicated canoe and trail chases take place over the lakes and through the mountains and forests of Upper York Colony. Full play is given to the treachery of Montcalm, General Webb and the Mingo warrior, Magua, as Cooper describes in heart-rending passages the disaster of the terrible massacre and its aftermath on the lives of both his fictional and historic characters.
The Pathfinder is devoted to a love story for Hawkeye. Cooper, fascinated with the use of ships to wage war on the Great Lakes, moves the scene of the action to Fort Oswego, Lake Ontario and the Thousand Islands at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Again, treachery drives the story as an officer of a Scottish regiment sells his loyalty to the French and their Indian sympathizers. Cooper displays a penchant for mystery and intrigue as the characters struggle to identify the traitor and avoid the capture of their island stronghold.
By 1794, the Cooper family had established the settlement of Cooperstown at the southern tip of Otsego Lake. The Pioneers returns to the site of The Deerslayer to portray an era in which the world of the game-rich forests and free roaming hunters and Indian tribes has been supplanted by property rights, civil law and a market economy. Natty Bumppo, now known simply as "The Leatherstocking", is in his seventies. Although he is still a formidable marksman and is not beyond effecting a dramatic rescue of a heroine from the historic Mt. Vision forest fire, society no longer has a place for him or for the skills which made him famous. With a heavy helping of nostalgia, Cooper devotes the book to a fascinating description of the living circumstances and activities of the Americans who built the frontier towns and who made the world of the rootless longhunters obsolete.
The frontier moved inexorably westward, and in The Prairie, we find Hawkeye removed to the uncharted territory which would become Wyoming and the Dakotas. Having fled the relentless sound of axes hewing down his beloved forests in the east, the Leatherstocking is now in his eighties and has isolated himself in the land of the Pawnee, the Sioux and countless herds of buffalo. Still there is no respite from the relentlessly encroaching settlers, and he finds himself expending the last of his strength and skills in the defense of a group of outcast Kentuckians who are seeking land rights as far as possible from the law. Culminating in a magnificently written death scene, The Prairie brings the old hunter full circle with images of his youth and reminiscences of the remarkable life which made him the prototype of the American Hero.
Cooper was not a disciplined or stylistically polished writer. His plots spilled uncensored and unedited from his wealth of historical knowledge and folklore, and from his endless fascination with the political and cultural ramifications of creating a new nation. The reader must choose his own level of focus and interest, and may find himself returning to the books many times to absorb the various levels of ideas the books encompass.
Whether the reader is an historian or a lover of romance, mystery and adventure, there is something for everyone in The Leatherstocking Tales. As pure adventure stories the books offer valiant heroes and cruel villains, complicated chase and rescue scenarios ending as often in devastating failure as in triumphant success, colorful military engagements and Indian raids, a touch of romance and a hard look at the dismal realities of frontier life.
For the avid mystery fan, Cooper provides a hero whose strange story must be pieced together from hundreds of subtle clues scattered throughout the five books. In addition, although many of the characters are purely fictional, numerous others are identifiable historical characters woven into the fabric of the plots in clever disguises. One can almost sense the author's impish glee as he challenges the reader to puzzle out the identities and so flesh out the background from which Natty Bumppo's strange and conflicting personality evolves.
Historians will find a wealth of material on the complexities of daily life pursued amidst the clashes of civilization and savagery that characterized the birth of the American Dream. On a more serene level, the lover of nature will find eloquent descriptions of the grandeur of deep and peaceful forests, crystalline lakes, treacherous rapids, and awe-inspiring waterfalls, prairies, mountains and cliffs.
To a reader with an interest in social, political and cultural issues, the lengthy and detailed passages devoted to contrasting moral and ethical values will provide endless thought-provoking consideration. Although couched in the language of the early 1800s, the issues which confront the characters of The Leatherstocking Tales are still unresolved and are as relevant as today's newspaper.