The Leatherstocking Tales, by James Fenimore Cooper (American classics)
- The Deerslayer
- The Last of the Mohicans
- The Pathfinder
- The Pioneers
- The Prairie
After reading two excellent Christian historical novels set in seventeenth and eighteenth century America, I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave that world yet and decided to try James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales. The Deerslayer sucked me into the series and held me captive until the final pages of The Prairie, and that astonished me; I really didn’t expect to love these books as much as I did.
The Pioneers was written to be an accurate and detailed account of life in an early New York settlement and succeeds very well at what it was written to accomplish. Cooper lived during decades not too far removed from those he wrote about and was alive during the time periods in which both The Pioneers and The Prairie were set.
Despite the fact that the other four books are, at their core, adventure stories, they’re true enough to their historical settings that they give a fascinating, harrowing look into the past. Not only that, but the novels’ settings are so detailed that a reader can pinpoint many of them on a modern map. These qualities, combined with the complex, descriptive paragraphs and large vocabulary typical of nineteenth century novels, resulted in a reading experience that was, for me, both immersive and alien, as if I really were stepping into a lost world.
The series chronicles the adventures of frontiersman Nathaniel (Natty) Bumppo, also known as Deerslayer, Hawkeye, Pathfinder, and Leatherstocking. His honest, guileless, and even transparent nature makes his interactions with the other early Americans he encounters interesting, amusing, and often bumpy. He’s an exceptionally skilled hunter and scout. He’s never learned to read books, but he “reads” the world around him with great perception and depth and considers nature to be the ultimate educational arena. At the end of his life, he’s described as having “never been corrupted by vice.”
In many ways, Natty’s a man both ahead of his time and behind ours. The narrator uses the terms “simple” and “dogmatic” to describe him, admits he has prejudices and “peculiar” manners, and shows him to be ignorant of worldly ways and, at the same time, judgmental of those who are more educated and sophisticated than he is if they don’t measure up to his high standards of honesty and usefulness. Modern readers might even call him a racist.
However one might describe Natty Bumppo, one of the most endearing things about him is that he wouldn’t care about our opinions of him any more than he does about the opinions of those living during his own time. He does, though, care very much about living an authentic life, true to himself and in harmony with God’s will.
He is so authentic that after letting a friend win a shooting match to impress a girl, he feels compelled to tell the girl that he really is a better shot than the other man, and then he shows it by shooting down two seagulls with one bullet (The Pathfinder, Chapter 11). At the end of his life, he says, “It is needful to be honest in one’s self, to be a fitting judge of honesty in others” (The Prairie, Chapter 33).
This theme runs throughout the entire series, but an incident in The Deerslayer dramatizes it particularly well. One of the characters, Thomas Hutter, has been captured by an enemy tribe. He keeps a mysterious chest that his daughter, Judith, goes through in order to find some treasure to use as ransom to get him released. Natty and his Delaware comrade Chingachgook help with this task. The three friends, who have spent most of their lives in the American wilderness, find several articles of fine clothing and are dazzled. Chingachgook tries on a festive red jacket, with buttonholes sewn in gold thread, and Judith dons a gorgeous gown
Natty observes that the gown “was made for the child of some governor, or a lady of high station, and it was intended to be worn among fine furniture, and in rich company.” He tells Judith that she certainly appears beautiful and queenly in it, but that “if there’s a creatur’ in the colony that can afford to do without finery, and to trust to her own good looks and sweet countenance, it’s yourself.”
Natty suggests to Chingachgook that Hist, his betrothed, would also look uncommonly beautiful in the gown. Chingachgook doesn’t disagree, but he doesn’t want to see her in it either. He gives this profound reply: “Like the young of the pigeon, she is to be known by her own feathers. I should pass by without knowing her, were she dressed in such a skin. It’s wisest always to be so clad that our friends need not ask us for our names” (The Deerslayer, Chapter 12). The fine clothes become a symbol of what Natty describes throughout the series as “gifts.”
“You find different colours on ‘arth, as any one may see, but you don’t find different natur’s. Different gifts, but only one natur’.”
“In what is a gift different from a nature? Is not nature itself a gift from God?”
“Sartain; that’s quick-thoughted, and creditable, Judith, though the main idee is wrong. A natur’ is the creatur’ itself; its wishes, wants, idees and feelin’s, as all are born in him. This natur’ never can be changed, in the main, though it may undergo some increase, or lessening. Now, gifts come of sarcumstances. Thus, if you put a man in a town, he gets town gifts; in a settlement, settlement gifts; in a forest, gifts of the woods. A soldier has soldierly gifts, and a missionary preaching gifts. All these increase and strengthen, until they get to fortify natur’, as it might be, and excuse a thousand acts and idees. Still the creatur’ is the same at the bottom; just as a man who is clad in regimentals is the same as the man that is clad in skins. The garments make a change to the eye, and some change in the conduct, perhaps; but none in the man. Herein lies the apology for gifts; seein’ that you expect different conduct from one in silks and satins, from one in homespun; though the Lord, who didn’t make the dresses, but who made the creatur’s themselves, looks only at his own work.”The Deerslayer, Chapter 25.
Natty holds to this belief throughout his life, and he tells his adopted Pawnee son Hard-Heart at the end:
“As I came into life so will I leave it. Horses and arms are not needed to stand in the presence of the Great Spirit of my people. He knows my colour, and according to my gifts will he judge my deeds. . . .
“What I have done, He has seen. His eyes are always open. That, which has been well done, will He remember; wherein I have been wrong will He not forget to chastise, though He will do the same in mercy.”The Prairie, Chapter 34
Only one doubt about his own eternal destiny ever seems to disturb Natty. The tenets of his century suggest that members of different races won’t go to the same Heaven. He believes that there’s only one God and one Heaven for the good people of all races, but he doesn’t know it. He wants very much to be with Chingachgook, Chingachgook’s son Uncas, and Hard-Heart in the next life, along with his other native friends, and the thought that death may mean he will never see them again gives him pain.
How many of us are ready to face God with this kind of honesty, humility, faith, and love?
The featured image “East Coast Creek” is Copyright © 2023 by Katherine Padilla. All rights reserved.