Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Oak Openings by James Fenimore Cooper (novel #132)

In dat day, my heart was stone. Afraid of Great Spirit, but didn’t love him. ~ Chief Onoah


I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019: a classic from a place where I have lived

This novel is set along the banks of the Kalamazoo River, where I spent the first 24 years of my life. I lived in the city of Kalamazoo – which took its name from the river. The name is of Native American origin, Potawatomie to be precise, but the literal meaning is lost. I also lived in Cooper Township, part of Kalamazoo, which is named for James Fenimore Cooper, who never lived there, but who invested in the area. It may have been Cooper’s objective for writing this novel – to create interest for his investment which did not pay off in his lifetime. Oak openings, were unusual geographical features, natural to parts of Michigan and Ohio, that were much like prairies, but with widely spaced oaks (i.e., there are openings between the oaks) vs the dense woodlands early pioneers were more accustomed to.

I think the alternate title; The Bee Hunter is better. The main character is Ben Boden, Ben Buzz to the natives, le Bourdon (the drone) to the French, a professional honey hunter who lived along the banks of the Kalamazoo. The novel opens at the outset of the War of 1812. Boden, his newly formed love interest Margery, her brother and sister-in-law, a Methodist missionary, and a lone soldier are all caught in a precarious position. The only significant settlements, forts at Detroit, Chicago, and Michilimackinac are all taken by the British. The predominant tribe, the Potawatomies, align with the British, leaving the six Americans nearly friendless and surrounded. They have two allies: Pigeonswing, a Chippewa brave who Boden once rescued from certain death, and Onoah, a mysterious Chief of no known tribe, who describes himself..
Onoah go just where he please. Sometime to Pottawattamie, sometime to Iroquois. All Ojebways [Chippewas] know Onoah. All Six Nations know him well. All Injin know him. Even Cherokee know him now, and open ears when he speak.

But Onoah is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It’s a captivating and exciting adventure. I loved it partially for the attention given to my native land, and even though I never knew the Kalamazoo in its unspoiled state, I could picture it as Cooper described without the cities, towns, and industry that now line its banks. Very nostalgic for me. But the appeal goes well beyond my own personal identification with the topography. I enjoyed it very much regardless of the physical setting. 

My rating: 4 1/2 of 5 stars


This is the last of Cooper’s wilderness tales, following the better-known Leatherstocking Tales. I’ve read a couple of those [The Deer Slayer, The Last of the Mohicans], and I didn’t love them. The hero Natty Bumppo, who is better known by epithets the natives gave him, Hawkeye or Deerslayer, seemed too good to be true.

The bee hunter, not so much. He is still the hero, admirable and brave, but he is flawed – downright foolhardy on a few occasions – and much more believable. In fact, that is part of what I loved: all of the characters are complex, conflicted, and believable.

The Native Americans – apart from using terms not politically correct today (redskin, savage, and Injin) Cooper did not paint with too broad a brush. His Native American characters could be savage or sagacious, wise or foolish, deliberate or impetuous, honorable or duplicitous, determined or conflicted, almost always strong and brave. I’m sure some will disagree, but I feel Cooper admired Native Americans and treated them with respect.

The Soldier – brave, faithful, somewhat arrogant and ethnocentric, but no fool.

The Women – sympathetic, brave and sturdy, occasionally naïve, but also no fools.

The Villain – Onoah, also known to some as Scalping Peter plots for the death of all white men, to include women and children, yet somehow, he is not depicted as a blood-thirsty savage. His hatred is nearly defended by Cooper as a natural outcome of the injustice done his people and the unending encroachment of their birthright hunting grounds. He is wise and thoughtful.

The Missionary, Parson Amen – and the most exciting part of this story. The missionary, is sincere and virtuous, a bit tender, a little foolish, but no hypocrite.

SPOILER ALERT

I usually try to avoid spoilers, but the ending was so glorious, I feel compelled to go into it just a bit. Scalping Peter plots the extermination of all white men, women and children. But slowly, through the kindness of Margery, and the honor of Boden he is softened and intends to dissuade the natives from killing these two. When he fails to convince them, he shrugs and accepts their fate. But then he witnesses the execution of the missionary, who prays for those about to kill him. Peter has heard of this doctrine of Christianity – to pray for one’s enemies – but he disbelieves it is ever done or can be done, until the missionary, in fearless Christ-like fashion, prays for his murderers.
The missionary uncovered his head, knelt, and again lifted up his voice in prayer. At first the tones were a little tremulous; but they grew firmer as he proceeded. Soon they became as serene as usual. 

Peter cannot spare him, but he is himself profoundly changed.
…for the first time in his life, was now struck with the moral beauty of such a sentiment. 

Never before was the soul of this extraordinary savage so shaken.


And there is still a daring and dangerous escape via the Kalamazoo River.

I’ve only read the three works by Cooper. This is easily my favorite.

Other excerpts:

But Buzzing Ben loved the solitude of his situation, its hazards, its quietude, relieved by passing moments of high excitement; and most of all, the self-reliance that was indispensable equally to his success and his happiness. Woman, as yet, had never exercised her witchery over him…

In this particular Parson Amen was a model of submission, firmly believing that all that happened was in furtherance of the great scheme of man’s regeneration and eventual salvation.

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10 comments:

  1. i really liked this book and i even remember it - some of it anyway- after reading about forty years ago, especially about the technical aspects of bee hive location... i've read quite a bit of Cooper since then and like him quite a bit as a writer and a person... The Spy was the last one i read: i did a post on it several months ago... tx for the thorough and entertaining review!

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    1. Thank you for the feedback. I need to read more of Cooper.

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  2. This does sound like fun. I worked at a summer camp in Michigan as a teenager. It could feel like homecoming...

    I liked all the Leatherstocking Tales, but Twain definitely gets it right in his parody: a little too good to be true.

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    1. I like Leatherstocking Tales too, but they felt more like a guilty pleasure than serious lit. I definitely found The Oak Openings more profound.

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  3. Completely new to me! Thank you for the review.

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    1. Good...well I definitely give it my recommendation.

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  4. I tried to read The Last of the Mohicans many years ago and never finished it. But I do recall feeling that Cooper had a real respect and admiration for Native Americans and what the country was loosing by pushing them out.

    The Oak Opening/The Bee Hunter sounds like I should give it a try even if I did't get on with The Last of the Mohicans .

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    1. If you have any interest in frontier stories, I'd give it a try. It's fairly short, so not a major investment.

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  5. I’d never heard of this title before, or Kalamazoo, for that matter, but then I’m not American. Great review & will look out for it, especially as it’s not a long read! I did read Last of the M but it was a long time ago.

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    1. IMO...this is better than Last of the Mohicans. Give it a try.

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