When I was in grade eight, age 13, I won a reading prize at school. Don’t be impressed. Most everyone was a winner of something and all I had to do was struggle through a few versus of text in front of the assembly and make it back to my seat without tripping over the extended feet of my smirking classmates.
My prize was a nice leather-bound copy of James Fenimore Cooper’s classic, “The Last of the Mohicans.” I am now 63 years-old and happy to report that I am about to finish reading the book.
Have you read The Last of the Mohicans? The introduction to the book begins this way:
“It is believed that the scene of this tale, and most of the information necessary to understand its allusions, are rendered sufficiently obvious to the reader in the text itself, or in the accompanying notes. Still there is so much obscurity in the Indian traditions, and so much confusion on the Indian names, as to render some explanation useful.”
After reading those opening lines you may understand why, at age 13, I put the book down and waited 50 years to pick it up again.
But it is a gripping yarn and if you have not read it, do so. It takes a while to get use to the ornate prose of Mr. Cooper, but once you have the rhythm you may find words such as render returning to your everyday vocabulary. As in (to the older person in the check-out line), “May I render you service out to your car?”
The Mohicans were not New Hampshire Native Americans. They were New Yorkers. But the backdrop to the story could have been anywhere along the frontier of our new country in the mid-18th century, covered as it was by dense and sometimes impenetrable wilderness.
It will be easy to carry Cooper’s vivid descriptions of the forest from that time into the woods on our next hike around Hancock and I look forward to allowing those images to penetrate the experience.
On that occasion there will be no Native Americans jumping out from behind the trees, but I will think of them. Can you imagine? The dogs are with you, the grandchildren, a few friends, and binoculars swinging around your neck. Someone steps out from behind a tree in deerskin breeches. “It’s Uncas,” you exclaim!
“Uncas, please come and meet my grandchildren.”
“Savages” and “Indians,” Fenimore Cooper referred to them, but without distain. Indeed, James Fenimore Cooper wrote reverently throughout his book about Native Americans and their traditions. And no tradition seemed more reverent to him than the workings of the Native American council, which was exceedingly democratic, a fact that has emerged from studies over time.
Did you know, for instance, that the Colonists who took part in the Boston Tea Party dressed as Native Americans because it served as an emblem of Democracy? I managed to get all the way to 63 years-old thinking that the Colonists dressed as Native Americans to disguise themselves from the British. Evidently not. It was a fashion statement. They dressed in the democratic uniform of the day.
So it was that James Fenimore Cooper wrote:
“The Mohicans listened gravely, and with countenances that reflected the sentiments of the speaker. Conviction gradually wrought its influence, and toward the close of Hawkeye’s speech, his sentences were accompanied by the customary exclamation of commendation. In short, Uncas and his father became converts to his way of thinking, abandoning their own previously expressed opinions with a liberality and candor that, had they been the representatives of some great and civilized people, would have infallibly worked their political ruin, by destroying forever their reputation for consistency.
“The instant the matter in discussion was decided, the debate, and everything connected with it, except the result appeared to be forgotten. Hawkeye, without looking round to read his triumph in applauding eyes, very composedly stretched his tall frame before the dying embers and closed his own organs in sleep.”
I suppose in an ideal democratic world the moral of that story is never go to bed angry.
Here’s to old prizes.
From our place in the woods,
Jarvis and Marcia.