Sunday, November 20, 2016

Staff Review: The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper

For the Great Reading Challenge, I’ve chosen to read a book over 100 years old. I read James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers in part because I’ve had a worn dusty edition sitting on my coffee table for the past year, but also (and the reason it’s been taking up table space) because it is set during a time in American history I’ve wanted to better understand. Particularly I’ve been curious about who these settlers were, some of the events that happened in the country before they came, their aspirations, and their continuing effect on the modern world. Basically, I wanted a deeper understanding than the bits I remember from grade school.

The Pioneers is the first book in Cooper’s five stories about his character Leatherstocking. It has a common narrative style of the 19th century: richly detailed with descriptions of the setting and characters, and it strolls along at a leisurely pace. With the book being over 400 pages, it takes some time to get into the rhythm of plot and language. That being said, this style isn’t for everyone. I was a little skeptical when Cooper warned in the introduction that the book is a “descriptive tale” and that he wrote it solely for personal satisfaction. I figured it could go one of two ways: a directionless rambling with explanations of every type of tree he encountered and a long geological survey of the area; or, since it was inspired by personal passion, it might be a unique glimpse into that time period. I was happy to discover that my second speculation was closer. Although the descriptions at the beginnings of chapters (mostly in the first half of the book) can be quite long before any action happens, I feel they add depth to the story and help place the reader into that world.

The Pioneers is loosely based on Cooper’s own life: his father founded Cooperstown, New York, with the parallel in the story being the fictional town of Templeton, founded by Judge Marmaduke Temple (possibly bearing some resemblance to Cooper’s actual father). This character is treated with fairness – he believes in the justness and fairness of the law, but also believes the land is his because of the document given to him from his country. We find a constant conflict with Temple's beliefs in the character of Nathaniel (Natty) Bumppo, also known as Leatherstocking (the Davy Crockett-like hero of Cooper’s novels).

Even though much of the book is descriptive, Cooper introduces an engaging storyline and scenes of suspense.  The reader is introduced to threatening wild animals, hunting mishaps, wild fires, and blossoming romance. The descriptions and narrative serve the bigger part of pushing forward Cooper’s beliefs. The book is written with much reverence toward the Native Americans' lifestyle, but also pathos toward the settlers (well, some of the settlers). He’s highly critical of the settlers, but makes his characters very human and relatable. The character of Leatherstocking, who fought in the French and Indian War and adapted a loner lifestyle with a Native American friend, represents the wisdom that comes from knowing how to live off the land.  Judge Templeton is an intelligent person and understands the need to be conservative with the environment, but coming from a different background also believes in the fairness of the law invented by civilized men. Although presenting opposing philosophies, Cooper is fair with both these characters and paints them as some of the most reasonable in the book, although Leatherstocking is more clearly the hero. 

Some of the settlers represent what we might recognize as our least admirable qualities. Richard, Templeton’s cousin, amplifies this position in his boastfulness and lavish attitude toward the land and animals. His extravagance is displayed when he wheels in a cannon to shoot at pigeons. Not content with the settlers shooting down as many as they can get, he wants to prove that he can get it done in one “fell swoop of destruction.” Cooper’s environmentalist philosophy is displayed in many of the character interactions in the novel.  These early reflections of our impact on the environment remain especially powerful today.

For those ready to invest themselves in this book, The Pioneers acts as a meditation on our American way of life. Although history already took the course the settlers set in motion, these early insights into the minds of the pioneers help us to connect with a larger picture of what it means to be an American, forcing the reader to think critically about our relationship with the natural world. Besides the strong message, the action and drama set up with Cooper’s characters keep the story fun. All five stories starring Natty Bumppo can be checked out from the library under the title The Leatherstocking Tales, containing perhaps the most famous story The Last of the Mohicans.

~Ben, Adult Services

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