(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Prairie, the third published novel of the Leatherstocking Tales but the last in Deerslayer’s chronology, depicts Leatherstocking, now known as the trapper or the old man, in his final days. The setting is the edge of the Great Plains, the time is 1805, and the hero is in his eighties—his maturation and movement have paralleled that of the United States. Although Cooper himself never traveled to this locale, he researched his subject well. Unfortunately, with the familiar good against bad Indians dichotomy (this time the Pawnee and Sioux, respectively), wise sayings that sound more like platitudes, and the stock romance pursuit, capture, and escape plot, Natty Bumppo’s exit is not as memorable as his entrance.

The Prairie offers Natty one last chance to return to his glory. Reduced in his last days to mere trapping, he has the opportunity to be a scout once again with the arrival of the Bush party of squatters. By way of continuity, Cooper also has Natty run into Captain Duncan Uncas Middleton, the grandson of Duncan Heyward and Alice Munro Heyward of The Last of the Mohicans; moreover, the captain’s middle name is that of Chingachgook’s son. Much of this novel, though, reads like a rehash. The evil Sioux chieftain, Mahtoree, is a lesser copy of Magua (from The Last of the Mohicans, which Cooper had written the year before). The narrative is laden with tricks, some improbable and some clichéd. Dr. Obed Bat...

(The entire section is 426 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Shortly after the time of the Louisiana Purchase, Ishmael Bush, his wife, Esther, and their children travel westward from the Mississippi River. Their wagon train includes their fourteen sons and daughters; Esther’s niece, Ellen Wade; Esther’s brother, Abiram White; and Dr. Obed Battius, a physician and naturalist. While searching for a place to camp one evening, the group meets old Trapper (Natty Bumppo) and his dog, Hector. The trapper directs them to a nearby stream for a campsite.

After night falls, Trapper discovers Ellen in a secret meeting with her lover, Paul Hover, a wandering bee hunter. A band of Sioux Indians captures the three, but they manage to escape. The raiders steal all the horses and cattle from Ishmael’s caravan. Unable to proceed across the prairie, the group occupies a naturally fortified hilltop shown to them by Trapper.

A week later, Hover, Trapper, and Battius gather around Trapper’s campsite. Soon, a young stranger who introduces himself as Captain Duncan Middleton of the U.S. Army, joins them. Middleton is the grandson of Trapper’s old friends, Major Duncan Heyward and Alice Munro-Heyward; Trapper had known the Heywards in the days of the French and Indian Wars. Middleton is looking for his wife, Inez, whom Abiram White, Esther’s brother, has been holding captive since shortly after her marriage. Paul, Trapper, and Battius agree to help Middleton rescue Inez.

Ishmael and his sons leave their camp to hunt buffalo. In the evening, they return with meat. However, Asa, the oldest son, is missing. In the morning, the entire family sets out to search for Asa. They find his dead body in a thicket; one of Trapper’s bullets had entered his back. The Bush family buries Asa and returns to camp, only to find that both Ellen and Inez are gone.

The young women, who have been rescued by Middleton and his friends, are making their escape across the prairie when a meeting with the Pawnee warrior Hard-Heart interrupts their journey. After the warrior gallops away on his horse, the travelers find themselves in the path of a stampeding herd of buffalo. At the last moment, the braying of Battius’s donkey saves the group from being trampled to death; the donkey’s strange cry had caused the herd to turn aside.

The band of Sioux that held Trapper, Paul, and Ellen captive continues pursuing the bison herd. The warriors now take Middleton’s party captive. About the same time, Ishmael and his sons, who are searching for Inez and Ellen, approach on foot. The Sioux remount and give horses to their captives so that they all can ride to Ishmael’s camp while Ishmael and his sons are away. During the Indian raid on the camp, Trapper helps his friends escape on horseback.

The escapees ride as...

(The entire section is 1135 words.)