The Last of
James Fenimore Cooper
Robertson Dean, Reader
(Books on Tape)It's north Florida late spring 1945. We're at Fishweir School, sixth grade, over at the tail end of St. John's Avenue. No TV, no guards, no graffiti, no school psychologist. 250 noisy sometimes dirty students who leave their bicycles unlocked just outside the back door of the school.
Our play area is gray hot dirt, shaded by the occasional loblolly pine. Lunch is served at the far end of the hallway. The smell of spaghetti sauce starts up around eleven in the morning. During our play period, most of the children leave the fifteen cents or the quarter they'll need for the meal out on their desks.Mrs. Coody is our teacher: math, spelling, penmanship, Florida history. Mrs. Brown comes in twice a week in the afternoons to teach music. Both Mrs. Coody and Mrs. Brown wear long dresses, proper to the teachers of the day. Mrs. Coody explains to us the first day in class that her name is nearly the same as the "cootie" that bites people. Thus, she successfully wins our hearts and defangs the joke that would otherwise have plagued her all year long.There is no air conditioning. The ceilings are high, the windows stand tall to catch the occasional breeze and the stench of the mud flats from tiny Fishweir Creek next door. When it's movie-time --- usually Wednesday afternoons --- the folding walls between Mrs. Coody's room and Mrs. Ross's fifth grade room next door are pulled back and we turn our desks to face away from the black-curtained windows.
Mrs. Ross runs the projector which is large and hot and sends a shaft of bright white light onto the ceiling as well as onto the screen. It takes her at least ten minutes to thread the projector and set up the screen. Often during the course of the movie, the film will break, or the sound will turn fuzzy (once a film on Columbus actually crackled and sizzled on the screen right in front of our eyes); but we, the faithful students, will not be deterred, despite the heat and the sweat and that fat Kenny Walsh who always sits in the front row and laughs at the wrong places in the story.
The films are produced by the ERPI film company, which my pal Donald Lamarr immediately labels "Urpy Classroom Films" --- urp being our word for throwup or vomit. I remember some of the movies. There was one on nutrition, showing barrels of wheat and rice and other grains and a doctor in a white coat lecturing the camera about vitamins and minerals with charts and a pointer. There was another on good posture with black lines drawn down the spine. Kenny Walsh giggled at the shot of a naked back.
There was a film on a steel industry, industrially pure and patriotic (we were still at war with the Japanese): great vats of liquid this and that being poured with sparks spilling thrillingly out onto the floor. There was one on Beethoven where he plays the piano and shakes his head then pounds the keyboard with his fists because he cannot hear the music, his face in a rage while we hear the wavery, unsteady notes of the "Moonlight Sonata" in the background.
And then there was "The Last of the Mohicans." I remember it well because it went on endlessly ... some thirteen or fifteen episodes ... but since we didn't have television in those days what better way to spend the hot Florida Wednesday afternoon than in the high-ceilinged room watching men go about half-naked spying out of the branches in the forest, spying on lovely ladies in long dresses ... faces heavy with paint (both ladies and Indians).
The Indians wore buckskin and carried tomahawks. When they were not skulking about the woods they crept up on the palefaces in their large dark forts. All this came to us in black, dark gray, gray, light gray, or white ... for the world, at least the wild world of ERPI Classroom Films, all was but black and white.
We never could figure out where the plot was going, nor why. And now and so it is, I find out, with the book itself. Maybe more so. There are dozens of tribes represented here --- Mohicans, Hurons, Delaware, Lenape, Mingos, Mengwe --- and they are all at war with the French, or the English, or with each other, but never with the forest; only the palefaces have trouble with the forest; they certainly cannot read its signals.
The vocabulary of this novel is the one that built Cowboy-and-Indian of our youth: tomahawks, happy hunting grounds, redskins, pale-faces, hawk-eyes, wampum, forked-tongue, scalping, totems, wigwams. Every wheeze that blew through the lore was engendered by Fenimore Cooper, a man who just couldn't stop cooking up these stories (there are not only the five Leather-Stocking tales but some thirty other books that he spawned in his long, wordy life).
It is 1757. You and I and the characters are scrambled up in the French and Indian Wars of the period. Immediately after the massacre at Fort William Henry, lovely, long-tressed Cora and her lovely sister Alice find themselves kidnapped by a Very Bad Man ... a Huron by the name of Magua. Demon Rum --- supplied by the Dutch --- has made him Bad. And Mad. By hook or by crook, he plans to get Cora into his teepee.
He takes the two of them up somewhere between the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains to his tribal home north of Valcour Island. They are being tracked by sharpshooter Hawk-eye and his faithful Delaware Indian companions Chingachgook and Unca, the last being the last of the saintly Mohicans. There is also a not-too-bright English soldier, Duncan Heyward (beloved of Alice), and a bumbling teacher named David who comes along for comic relief and may be Fenimore Cooper's version of a gay, 18th-Century musician.
It is a long, arduous journey, ending up at a huge tribal meeting of the Delawares where the fate of the ladies and their kidnapper will be decided.
Cooper's language can be as long and as arduous as the journey. Here is an example, taken from the council of Indians:
In a collection of so serious savages, there is never to be found any impatient aspirant after premature distinctions, standing ready to move his auditors to some hasty, and, perhaps, injudicious discussion, in order that his own reputation may be the gainer. An act of so much precipitancy and presumption, would seal the oldest and most experienced of the men to lay the subject of the conference before the people. Until such a one chose to make some movement, no deeds in arms, no natural gifts, nor any renown as an orator, would have justified the slightest interruption.
At one point, it is put to Tamenund, the 100-year-old chief, as to whether the villainous Magua will be allowed to take Cora for his squaw-lady. The chief declares, "Girl, what wouldst thou! A great warrior takes thee to wife. Go --- thy race will not end." Saucy Cora shakes her long dark locks, breathes deeply with her lovely white bosom, and lets Tamenund know what she thinks of that idiot idea: "Better, a thousand times, it should," exclaimed the horror-struck Cora, "than meet with such a degradation!"
The old Indian turns to Magua: "Huron, her mind is in the tents of her fathers. An unwilling maiden makes an unhappy wigwam." An unhappy wigwam!
Magua advanced, and seized his captive strongly by the arm; the Delawares fell back, in silence; and Cora, as if conscious that remonstrance would be useless, prepared to submit to her fate without resistance.
"Hold, hold!" cries Duncan, the dullbulb Englishman. Colonialist that he is, he offers "gold, silver, powder, lead --- all that a warrior needs, shall be in thy wigwam. Her ransom shall make thee richer than any of the people were ever yet known to be."
But Magua, knowing a good thing when he has it in hand, can't be bought: "he wants not the beads of the pale-faces." He moves to pull Cora off into the sunset and into his teepee, to whatever ghastly fate awaits her there.
Fortunately, the last of the Mohicans, Unca, declares war on Magua and follows the two into the forest, and before the Huron can force Cora into unspeakable (if not primitive) acts, kills him ... and dies in the process. So much for redskins who want to live above their station.
It is, as I say, easy to make fun of Fenimore Cooper. His characters have more names than you might find in a Tolstoi novel. The brave scout Natty Bumppo (sic!) is also known as "Leatherstocking," by the Indians as "the Long Gun," "Pathfinder," "Deerslayer," or "Hawkeye." The characters are forever winding themselves up in speeches that go on to such length that they threaten to disappear in the forest amongst the moss and woodpeckers. (Characters are also, without any shame whatsoever, ejaculating: "'The Lenape are rulers of their own hills,' he ejaculates.")
Still, it is not unpleasant to roam the forests with Hawkeye and Unca, chasing after poor Cora and Alice. The reading we have here is by Robertson Dean, and it is a dilly: measured, well-paced, even regal. The Last of the Mohicans was published in 1826, in the days before books came to be more commonly available. They were written to be read aloud, preferably to the kids, safely under the covers, at bedtime. With this Books on Tape version, you are there, in bed, or driving the car, or, best, in the silent baleful forest, as much a character in this book as Chingachgook and son Unca and the brave, clear-eyed, ringlet-infested Cora, half black, it turns out (she was born on a Caribbean isle to a slave mother). She is certainly no slouch in the stout-heart department: at one point, Leather-stocking ejaculates, "I would I had a thousand men, of brawny limbs and quick eyes, that feared death as little as you!"
I'd send the jabbering Frenchers back into their den again, afore the week was ended, howling like so many fettered hounds, or hungry wolves.
--- Marianne Wescott, PhD