Amanda May's Reviews > The Pioneers

The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper
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Sep 01, 11

Read from August 29 to September 01, 2011

I've heard say of a certain book, a great American classic that captures the paradoxes and attitudes of the American frontier, and after explorin' this here text from the east end of the front cover across its wide open plains, mountains, rivers, valleys, woods, wolves, and the seventh circle of hell, to the western boundaries of the back cover's oceanic shores, glimmering with the hope and wonder of completion, I find myself still more partial to the British texts than before embarking on this treacherous 456-page trek, during which I was diverted by all of the extratextual wonders, and enact the unlawful violence of fifty Templetons upon that which Cooper wrought, than ever before.

If you can stagger your way through that sentence, then maybe you will enjoy Cooper.

Having said that, I will now proceed to summarize the plot. Natty Bumppo, also called about fifty other names, is an iconic frontiersman who kills wildlife sparingly, lives in isolation from Templeton's residents, and, much like the hero of the Grecian/Roman Epic, always appears at the last minute to save the damsel in distress or say something witty. Conversely, the Templetonians, captivated by the wealth of the land, engage in all sorts of wasteful behavior, including the frequently anthologized "pigeon scene." Judge Temple is given the task of maintaining the balance between law and morality, which is continually broadsided by Natty's resistance to the former and the failure of the town's residence to uphold the latter.

While it does portray the tension between law and morality well, and while it does capture the attitudes of the day, I found the prose an utterly dull trek. Portrayal after portrayal of nature was given, whereas little attention was given to certain matters between characters; conversations that occurred behind closed doors are left to the imagination of the reader. My theoretical for this is simply that the focus of the novel was not human interaction but the portrayal of frontier life, along with all of its difficulties and dilemmas.

Additionally, I find myself frustrated by the text's prejudicial attitudes (likely an unjustifiable point since the modern day idea of freedom is quite anachronistic) and by the sheer coincidence and melodrama. The prose was like walking through a swamp in lead shoes; it was heavy, and often too verbose (for example, it takes 70 pages to get Oliver, who has just been shot by Judge Temple, to a place where the bullet can be removed, and shortly after the doctor shows up and makes the first incision, the bullet simply falls out). Oliver was by far one of my favorite characters... until he revealed his true identity, which eliminated his fascinating ability to tread across the boundary between civilization and a frontiersman's selfhood. Now, I just find myself frustrated with the text's typical happy ending and at a loss to predict how contemporaries of this era received the characters: was Hiram Doolittle despicable to them? What about Natty Bumppo and his hubris?

Left without these answers, I give the novel a (generous) two stars and reaffirm my own personal bias towards British literature, which likely provided much of the bias that went into this review. Nevertheless, I enjoy people to read Cooper who are interested in a fictional portrayal of a real place and who are interested in the American frontier.

Best of luck on the read. It is a long and slow-paced one.
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