Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Deerslayer - James Fenimore Cooper

Having read and enjoyed “The Last of the Mohicans” a pair of times, I decided to read this pre-quel by the same author.  There are actually several books about Nathanael Bumppo, aka Scout, Deerslayer, Hawkeye – they are referred to as “The Leatherstocking Tales.”  I enjoyed this book well enough that I will likely read more of the collection later.

This book is about the introduction of Deerslayer as a youthful hunter, as he goes upon his first warpath with his trusted friend Chingachkook.  It tells of their struggles with an opposing band of Hurons.  In that respect it is true to the form of the more popular novel mentioned above.

The theme of the book is forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption.  A lesser theme that runs throughout Cooper's books is how we need to act well in the context of our station and gifts in life (i.e. red man’s gifts, white man’s gifts).  The main characters involved the major theme of redemption are members of a family named Hutter who live on a remote lake in New York territory called the Glimmerglass – Thomas, the father, was a brigand or pirate in an earlier career and has settled in this remote place to avoid detection and live out his days in peace.  The mother is long since dead, but she apparently compromised her principles when young to attach herself to this man, and so she dedicated the rest of her life to teaching her two daughters the essence of Christian doctrine in the Bible, in the hopes of redeeming them.  The eldest daughter, Judith, is a rare beauty that in the recent past has let her vanity carry her to some undisclosed impropriety or sin with an officer from the nearby regiment, but feels great remorse for the misdeed and seems to have reformed.  The younger daughter, Hetty, is mentally deficient but morally perfect.

Judith recognizes the goodness of Deerslayer’s character and falls in love with him.  The climax of the book is the captivity, torture, and rescue of Deerslayer from aforementioned band of Hurons.  During the rescue Hetty is mortally wounded.

In the closing chapters it feels like Judith’s redemption might be made complete if Deerslayer accepts her love, but he does not feel the same way as she does.  There is some allusion to her never quite overcoming the transgression from her past and living an ignominious life.  Having read some other works from the same era, such as Nathanael Hawthorne, I recognize the religious and cultural perspective of the time that these types of moral sins can never really be overcome in this life.  I cannot say that I fully agree; I struggled with this conclusion in the book.  But now that the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction, I long for a return to this moral perspective – it is superior to the levity with which we as a culture treat these matters today.

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