Natty Bumppo, a young woodsman known as Deerslayer, and Hurry Harry travel to the shores of Lake Glimmerglass together. It is a dangerous journey, for the French and their Iroquois allies are on the warpath. Deerslayer is planning to meet his friend Chingachgook, the young Delaware chief, so that they might go against the Iroquois. Hurry Harry is on his way to the lake to warn Thomas Hutter and his daughters that hostile Indians are raiding along the frontier. Harry is accustomed to hunt and trap with Hutter during the summer, and he is an admirer of Hutter’s elder daughter, the spirited Judith.
Hutter and his daughters live in a cabin built on piles in the middle of the lake. Hutter also builds a great, scowlike vessel, known among frontiersmen as the ark, on which he travels from one shore of the lake to the other on his hunting and trapping expeditions. On their arrival at the lake, the two find a hidden canoe. Having paddled out to the cabin and found it deserted, they proceed down the lake and come upon the ark anchored in a secluded outlet. Hutter already learned of the Indian raiders. The party decides to take refuge in the cabin, where they can be attacked only over the water. The men manage to maneuver the ark out of the narrow outlet and sail it to the cabin. They have one narrow escape, for as the ark clears the outlet, six Indians try to board the boat by dropping from the overhanging limbs of a tree. Each misses and falls into the water.
Under cover of darkness, Hutter, Deerslayer, and Hurry Harry take the canoe and paddle to shore to get Hutter’s two remaining canoes hidden there. They find the canoes and, on their way back to the ark, sight a party of Indians camped under some trees. While Deerslayer waits in a canoe offshore, the other two men attack the Iroquois camp in an attempt to obtain scalps, for which they can receive bounties. They are captured. Deerslayer, knowing that he is powerless to help them, goes to sleep in the canoe until morning.
When Deerslayer awakens, he sees that one of the canoes drifted close to shore. To rescue it, he is forced to shoot an Indian, the first man he ever kills. Returning to the fort with his prizes, Deerslayer tells the girls of their father’s fate. It is agreed that they will delay any attempt at rescue until the arrival of Chingachgook, whom Deerslayer is to meet that night.
The party goes in the ark and meets Chingachgook at the spot where the river joins the lake. Back in the cabin, Deerslayer explains that the Delaware came to the lake to rescue his sweetheart, Wah-ta!-Wah, who was stolen by the Iroquois. Suddenly, they discover that Hetty Hutter disappeared. The girl, somewhat feebleminded, casts off in one of the canoes with the intention of going to the Indian camp to rescue her father and Hurry Harry.
The next morning, Wah-ta!-Wah comes upon Hetty wandering in the forest. She takes the white girl to the Iroquois camp. Because the Indians believe deranged persons are protected by the Great Spirit, she suffers no harm.
It is Deerslayer’s idea to ransom the prisoners with some rich brocades and carved ivory that he and Judith found in Tom Hutter’s chest. Its contents were known only to Hutter and Hetty, but in this emergency, Judith does not hesitate to open the coffer. Meanwhile, a young Iroquois rows Hetty back to the cabin on a raft....
(The entire section is 1381 words.)
The Deerslayer, a prequel (the last published but the first in the hero’s chronology of the Leatherstocking Tales), introduces Cooper’s youthful protagonist. Natty Bumppo, a young man in his twenties, has come to Glimmerglass (Otsego Lake) in upper New York State to help his blood brother, Chingachgook, rescue the Delaware chieftain’s betrothed, Hist. In this idealized natural world of the 1740’s, these two noble savages must formulate a practical morality somewhere between abstract Christianity, Indian savagery, and corrupt civilization’s values.
The Deerslayer is a good example of a romance, that nineteenth century version of the novel. In order to ensure its didactic intent, the romance presents a simpler view of reality. Characters are clearly good or bad. Natty, Chingachgook, and Hist are basically heroic representatives of civilization and the Indian world, while Hurry Harry, Tom Hutter, and Rivenoak are their evil counterparts. Similarly, the Delaware Indians are good; the Hurons, bad. Natty is the moral paragon, refusing, for example, to take scalps as Hurry Harry and Tom Hutter do. Appropriate for a man caught between ethical codes, Natty is part white and part Indian as well as part Christian and part savage.
The highly episodic plot follows the popular novel pattern of pursuit, capture, and escape. There are no surprising reversals, and the ending is pure deus ex machina, complete with the king’s troops arriving...
(The entire section is 604 words.)