Once again, James Fenimore Cooper takes us back to the French Indian wars of the mid 1700’s in, The Deerslayer; the prequel to The Last of the Mohicans, and first in the Natty Bumpo Leatherstocking series. Deerslayer is one of many names of the white frontiersman, Nathanial Bumpo, who is the central character in the Leatherstocking series. He earns the name, Hawkeye, in this novel but is called Deerslayer until the sequel, Last of Mohicans begins. Most of his appellations refer to his affinity to hunt and wield his rife–Killdeer.
In, The Deerslayer, the reader finds Hawkeye on an adventure to help his friend, Chingachgook, rescue his betrothed from her Huron captors. The setting of the story is a bit east of Minnesota on Otsego Lake in Upstate New York. Nathaniel is a young man, probably in his early twenties, who has the benefit of a Christian education. He is a man of principle whose resolute honesty, straight talk, and gentle treatment of women, make him a revered friend to all who meet him. Whether such a character could evolve from his circumstance of being orphaned and then adopted by Deleware Indians is a matter of speculation–or fiction. Cooper did not point to anyone in particular as a model for his Hawkeye character, so we can assume he is either an amalgam of several really swell guys familiar to Cooper, or just an amalgam of some really commendable character traits. Whatever his make-up, Hawkeye is the 18th Century frontier version of Batman in that, although lacking superpowers, he is benevolent, intelligent, honest, forthright, and he makes the women swoon. He also fights the good fight, and tends to come out on top in most of his scuffles.
While many readers struggle with Cooper’s more formal style of writing, most can become accustomed, if not enamored with it, after a few feet-wetting pages. Cooper’s gifts lie in scene setting, characterization, structure and plot. He is a master storyteller and though Mark Twain penned his criticism of Cooper’s “gifts,” I think some of his judgements may be owed to writer-envy, whose greenery did not flatter Twain. In Twain’s defense, there is some level of deus ex machina, used for the resolution of this novel. The reader wonders how Hawkeye can possibly survive his very perilous situation, and then all at once…poof! Taken as a whole, however, this is a very solid work of fiction and an interesting read that puts the reader back in the woods when there was more at stake than having the proper foot ware or forgetting your kevlar rain suit.