We cheated coronavirus last week – risking the swab test and two weeks quarantine in an expensive hotel – and escaped to Jersey for a short break before school reopened for Young Friend of the Elephants. It’s a tiny island of gorgeous beaches and on the second day when we hiked the north coast, we arrived, with the weather closing in and the rain spitting, to Plémont Bay: a sandy beach with caves in the rock face and a waterfall. It put me in mind, immediately, of one of the favourite books of my childhood: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, the second novel of the Leatherstocking Tales, and arguably Cooper’s best book:
“We are then on an island!”
“Ay! there are the falls on two sides of us, and the river above and below. If you had daylight, it would be worth the trouble to step up on the height of this rock, and look at the perversity of the water. It falls by no rule at all; sometimes it leaps, sometimes it tumbles; there it skips; here it shoots; in one place ’tis white as snow, and in another ’tis green as grass; hereabouts, it pitches into deep hollows, that rumble and crush the ‘arth; and thereaways, it ripples and sings like a brook, fashioning whirlpools and gullies in the old stone, as if ’twas no harder than trodden clay.”
(James Fenimore Cooper: The Last of the Mohicans)
For those of you who haven’t read it, the book is set in 1757, during the French and Indian Wars, and in the episode quoted above the main characters take refuge from the pursuing Hurons in an island cave in the middle of some waterfalls – Glens Falls, in the Hudson River. According to his daughter, Cooper actually got the whole idea for the book when showing the falls to some Englishmen, one of whom commented that it would make an excellent setting for a romance. I looked it up on the internet, but there is nothing you can really see nowadays – instead of the wilderness described in Cooper’s story, it’s now a completely built up area. I suppose I hoped that it had been preserved as a national park!
Leatherstocking Tales is a series of five books, following the life of Natty Bumppo (you have to wonder where Cooper got such an odd surname from), and through his life telling the story of the expansion of the American colonies towards the west in the second half of the 18th century – with the last novels set in the by then independent United States. In The Last of the Mohicans I think Cooper got it just perfect: it’s an enchanting blend of adventure, nature, history and romance, with a sad ending to the story which makes all the difference. In fact, all of the Leatherstocking Tales have an air of melancholy about them as Natty witnesses the wilderness he knew in his youth gradually vanish to be replaced by ‘civilisation’ and Cooper’s descriptions of nature add greatly to the atmosphere of the stories.
Natty goes by several names in the stories, given to him by his Indian friends and by his enemies – I mostly think of him as Hawkeye, sometimes as La Longue Carabine (Long Rifle in French) but never as Natty Bumppo. He was always a bit too holier-than-thou for my liking, however, and I always preferred his Indian sidekick Chingachgook, a classic noble savage (was Karl May’s Winnetou inspired by him?), together with his family. Chingachgook’s wife, Wah-ta-Wah, appears in the first novel, The Deerslayer, and their son, Uncas, is the last of the Mohicans. Except, of course, that he… but that would be telling.
I first read the Leatherstocking Tales when I was ten – my mum gave me a book voucher worth 100 Forints for my birthday – an absolute fortune in those time, especially for a ten year old – and then took me to the bookshop in the Pioneers’ Department Store on Rákóczi Street so that I could spend it. At the time I was obsessed with Karl May’s Indian (as in Native American) adventure novels, and when I saw a massive book in the shop titled the Big Indian Book, costing a whopping 72 Forints, I just had to have it. My mother, who probably hoped that I would get a dozen books of worthwhile literature like Sir Walter Scott or Alexandre Dumas, was horrified. But you know what? I’ve still got the book. It is nothing more, nothing less but the full Leatherstocking Tales – quite as worthwhile as Scott or Dumas actually, as my mother probably came to realise in due course. (By the way, I did also get round to read Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas, and voluntarily, by the time I was twelve, and I warmly recommend them too, along with Robert Louis Stevenson.)
Further Reading: ⇒ The novels of James Fenimore Cooper on Project Gutenberg