James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Descendants: American History for 21ˢᵗ Century Adolescent Readers

Anne K. Phillips (Kansas State University)

Presented at the Cooper and Children’s/Young Adult Literature Panel of the 2015 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Mass.

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal Fall, 2015, pp. 7-10.

Copyright © 2015, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

In 1973, Midge B. Abel noted that although “originally written for adults in 1826, the excitement of rescue, escape, and pursuit” in The Last of the Mohicans “provided older children with an interesting adventure about Indian and frontier life during the French and Indian wars” (202-3). Cooper’s works no longer appear in most American school curricula. Nonetheless, historical fiction remains popular because it offers young readers adventure and excitement. State standards also may encourage interdisciplinary study. Eager to cater to teachers who interweave historical and literary studies, publishers are issuing a stream of works that depict American history. 1 Moreover, the genre is lucrative, especially because historical novels consistently receive awards. As Sara L. Schwebel has noted, “during the years in which children’s book sales doubled [1986-1990], three out of five books winning the Newbery Medal — the top prize in American children’s literature and an award that greatly increases a book’s circulation — were historical fiction” (2). Since 2000, historical novels have been among the Newbery medalists and honor awards in all but four years.

Recent historical novels for younger readers continue to draw from models established by James Fenimore Cooper. The Last of the Mohicans clearly influences Gary Paulsen’s 2010 historical adventure Woods Runner, and thematic connections also can be seen in less immediately recognizable literary descendants such as Susan Cooper’s 2013 historical fantasy Ghost Hawk and Helen Frost’s 2013 historical novel-in-verse SALT: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War. Intriguingly, the contemporary reception of these novels aligns to some extent with scholars’ observations about The Last of the Mohicans.

Paulsen’s Woods Runner is most identifiably Cooperesque. Woods Runner is a novel of the American Revolution, not 1757, but Paulsen’s characterization of his protagonist, Samuel, seems deliberately to evoke associations with Natty Bumppo: “the more he was of the woods, of the wild, of the green, the less he was of the people ... his skills and his woods knowledge set him apart, made him different” (Paulsen 35). Cooper characterizes Natty as “hav[ing] a natural turn with a rifle” (31), and Samuel is associated with his gun from the opening page: “he was thirteen, carrying a .40-caliber Pennsylvania flintlock rifle, wearing smoked-buckskin clothing and moccasins, moving through the woods like a knife through water while he tracked deer to bring home to the cabin for meat” (3).

Supporting characters in Paulsen’s novel extend the parallels. Two figures may be inspired by David Gamut. First, Samuel finds “Old Bobby,” who has not been harmed, singing hymns as he buries victims in another settlement. Second, Abner McDougal, tinker at large, “dressed in sewn-together rags and looked as untidy as the junk he was carrying” (97), is reminiscent of David’s “illassorted and injudicious attire,” which “only served to render his awkwardness more conspicuous” (Cooper 16). Both of these figures are just odd enough to avoid harm. As David explains, when Natty finds him in the Huron village, “I am suffered to go and come at will” (223). Gamut is essential to the maneuverings of Natty and his compatriots in the later chapters of Mohicans, and McDougal safely interacts in multiple scenes with British forces. Additionally, in place of Alice Munro, Paulsen introduces Annie, whom Samuel protects after the death of her parents.

Mohicans and Woods Runner both depict the protagonists’ pursuits of loved ones who have been abducted, and both depict shocking violence. Two major plot trajectories of Mohicans track Natty and his associates’ pursuit of Magua and his “Mingo” henchmen who have captured Cora and Alice. In Woods Runner, British soldiers, with the assistance of the Iroquois, abduct Samuel’s parents. Cooper’s depiction of the massacre at Fort William Henry has inspired considerable discussion, as scholars such as Robert Lawson-Peebles have traced his sources and debated the accuracy of his depictions. Describing the slaughter of the settlers near the beginning of Woods Runner, Paulsen writes, “Most had been mutilated so badly it was hard to tell who they had once been. Overton lay by his cabin, his shirtsleeves still not down on his wrists, chest and stomach filled with arrows, his scalp gone so his face drooped without the top-skin to hold it up” (29). Samuel also witnesses the Hessians’ slaughter of Annie’s parents: “Caleb wasn’t armed, though he raised his arm and pointed at the soldiers. He and Ma were immediately gunned down. Then four soldiers jumped to the porch and bayoneted them” (83). Natty vows, after the attack at the Fort, “there is one rifle shall play its part, so long as flint will fire” (183), and Samuel burns for revenge. Terence Martin identifies Mohicans as “the bloodiest and most troubling of Cooper’s five Leatherstocking novels” (47), and Woods Runner may be Paulsen’s most purposefully graphic novel.

Reviewers, parents, and educators acknowledge Woods Runner’s gore (including the novel on some “parental alert” lists and recommending it for grades 6 and up), yet they affirm its powerful message. The Kirkus reviewer notes that it is “a superb reflection on the nature of war” (“Woods Runner“), and according to the blogger at “Parentdish,” “the blood and guts are used to drive home a terrible truth about war. They never feel sensational” (“Woods Runner“).

As Cooper’s works have been examined for their authenticity — for example, in Wayne Franklin’s argument that Cooper could only find his setting for Mohicans “by erasing history from nature” (33) — so the accuracy of Woods Runner has attracted attention. In a prominent Amazon review, Gregory Edgar draws on his expertise to point out what should be corrected in subsequent editions: “Page 122 refers to the Hudson River, which was called the North River then. ... Page 127 refers to British soldiers carrying bayonetted rifles; no such thing, they were muskets. And, on page 127, the boy ‘worked his way up to Boston and joined Morgan’s Rifles.’ Daniel Morgan was not in Boston in 1776, nor in 1777. In 1777, he was released from captivity in Quebec & rejoined Washington’s army in Philadelphia.” Interestingly, although Paulsen’s depiction of Native characters has not yet attracted the attention of critics, in the future they may note that his Iroquois are simply killing machines comparable to the beasts of the forest. In a single paragraph, Paulsen references the Indians’ killing of settlers between the predations of marauding bears and screaming panthers (5). Peck has noted that “revisionist literary historians ... demonstrate the ways in which Cooper’s characterizations of Indians, no matter how distinguishable one Indian ‘type’ is from another in his fiction, belong to the larger racial stereotypes that pervaded American thought in the nineteenth century” (Peck 8). It would be fair to say that Paulsen’s novel does not move beyond those stereotypes.

There are no references to Cooper or his works in Woods Runner and no reviewer has suggested any such connections. However, one aspect of Paulsen’s novel suggests that he purposefully alludes to the Leatherstocking Tales. In Woods Runner, a prominent character saves Samuel after two Iroquois have attacked him. Samuel’s bond of friendship with this character is so strong that near the end, he leaves his family and travels to Boston to fight alongside him. It seems significant that Paulsen has named that character “Cooper.”

Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk and Helen Frost’s SALT: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War compare with the Leatherstocking Tales primarily through their depictions of close male friendships between Native and non-Native characters within historical settings. Ghost Hawk initially focuses on a young Wampanoag man (although there are no reference to any specific tribe in the first 100 pages of the novel) whose experiences with the Puritans span from the 1620s through the 1670s. However, the novel focuses on a Puritan boy, John Wakeley, in the twelfth chapter, after Little Hawk becomes a ghost. Cooper describes her work as “of the imagination, set within a framework of historical events” (326); the term “historical fantasy” also has been applied to it.

Concerns about authenticity underlie much of the response to Ghost Hawk. At the prominent online resource “American Indians in Children’s Literature,” prominent scholar Debbie Reese questions Cooper’s sources for Ghost Hawk: “we have an author using seventeenth century sources to imagine the life of a Native character. ... I see no evidence that she consulted any sources that counter the bias and misinformation in the ways that American Indians are portrayed in those seventeenth century sources” (“Where”). Reviewer Kate Quealy- Gainer also wonders what inspired the protagonist’s rather generic depiction: “a more specific list of sources, particularly in regard to Little Hawk’s traditions, would have been appreciated” (146). Perhaps in response, Cooper’s website lists the resources she consulted. Additionally, Reese asserts, “A good bit of what is wrong with Cooper’s book has to do with imagining of Native culture, with that imagining rooted in romantic and biased views of Native peoples. ... Indians as mystical. Indians as animal-like. Indians as stoic. Indians as tragic. Those — and others — are part of this book, which is a white lament of what happened to Native peoples” (“Reading”). Reese’s criticisms have influenced others’ responses to the novel. Elizabeth Bird acknowledges, “Ghost Hawk was a subject of much contention even before it was even published. Debbie Reese ... raised a great many concerns with the text.” Bird then articulates her own objections to the novel: “Cooper imbues [the Native characters] with a stately majesty best suited to totems or symbols rather than people. ... They live and die as representations, not humans. When Little Hawk returns to his village, you feel mildly bad for him but hardly crushed. You didn’t know these people, not really.” These responses suggest that Cooper has not adequately grounded her authorial choices, in the fiction itself or in the resources packaged with the novel. Interestingly, James Fenimore Cooper’s readers raised objections about his depiction of Native Americans, as well — although in some cases, in the nineteenth century, the objection was that these characters were too noble. As W.H. Gardiner noted, “We should be glad to know ... in what tribe, or in what age of Indian history, such a civilized warrior as Uncas ever flourished” (quoted in Peck 6). 2

Other criticisms of Ghost Hawk will not surprise anyone who has followed current controversies regarding AP U.S. History curricula in Colorado, Texas, and elsewhere. 3 The thesis of these reviewers is that not enough respect is paid to our Puritan forefathers. As DJ Joe Sixpack writes in a generally favorable review of Ghost Hawk, “The Colonies Are Rising,” “There is ... a harsh portrait of the intolerance that Puritan leaders showed to their own people, and to the religious schisms that led to the founding of more liberal colonies. ... Some readers may find Cooper’s left-leaning politics too tendentious. ... ” Another reader, LRK, more explicitly objects to Cooper’s lack of patriotism: “I would have loved the book had it treated all involved fairly instead of glorifying the indigenous populations and the Separatists while casting the Puritans of the Mayflower and Plymouth as the violent, intolerant instigators of all future trouble between whites and native Americans in the US. ... [I]t is another book that tears down the foundations of this nation.”

SALT also focuses on friendship, in this case between Anikwa, a member of the Myaamia community, and James, a European-American settler. The boys find themselves on opposing sides during the battle of Fort Wayne in 1812. James’ family runs a trading post situated in a liminal space between the Natives’ settlement and the stockade. As British and American forces move toward a showdown at Fort Wayne, convening Natives debate which army they should support. Anikwa’s father maintains that they should not engage in war, but others, eager to expel the settlers, opt to support the British. James and his family are forced to move into the stockade, which is then blockaded by Native combatants, some of whom torch the trading post. As American forces arrive, the Natives flee and the soldiers destroy the settlements and burn the lands to discourage Natives from returning. The novel concludes with James’ and Anikwa’s families sharing a meal as they survey the ruins of their homes.

SALT has received positive reviews but also generated debate. In Booklist, Michael Cart highlights the way it “celebrates the relationship of both the Miami people and the Americans with the land and with each other” and judges it a “lovely evocation of a frontier America and the timelessness of friendship” (76), while Joanna Rudge Long describes it as “a story that resonates far beyond the events it recounts” (127). Among other concerns, however, critics have questioned the novel’s format and also the implications of the novel’s conclusion. Frost has evoked the stripes of the American flag by using a seven-couplet format for each of James’ poems. Each of Anikwa’s poems evokes Miami ribbon work, “in patterns layered on top of each other to form diamond and triangle shapes” (Frost 133). Reese highlights the implications of these forms: “we have Native people represented as art, and, American people represented as nation“ (“Initial,” italics in original). Frost does ensure that Anikwa and James, whose poems alternate throughout the novel, share equally in the narration. Perhaps in response to Reese’s and others’ critiques, member of the Myaamia community and Assistant Director of the Myaamia Center George Ironstrack notes in an analysis linked to Frost’s website that the novel’s form has its strengths and weaknesses: “As a historian, I recognize that the verse style cannot effectively carry the detail I expect in a historical monograph, but these kinds of narratives serve different purposes than historical works. Good fiction, like SALT, allows readers to wrestle with emotion, perspective, the known, and the unknown in ways that are different from historical texts.”

Reese also critiques the novel’s conclusion: “Sitting together for meals in the midst of turmoil and war is possible, but I’m not sure how plausible it is. ... In light of what preceded that moment, and what happened after it, the story doesn’t work for me. It ends up being somewhat of a feel-good story that suggests optimism and hope for relationships between peoples in conflict, but for me, it masks the truth” (“Initial”). Ironstrack respectfully submits that the friendship between Native and non-Native families is historically accurate and that Frost’s final depiction of the families “has an ambiguous character to it. It could be hopeful or it could be mournful. ... As a tribal historian ... I can say that I hear no laughter in this moment and I feel no joy when I think of the dire circumstances faced by all Myaamia communities in the winter of 1812.” However, he notes, “between the end of the War of 1812 and the forced removal of 1846 much that was good occurred as well, and so it is certainly historically possible to take a hopeful view of the families’ song.”

Issues of accuracy and appropriation underlie the responses to SALT as well as Ghost Hawk. Even though both Cooper and Frost acknowledge having conducted extensive research, Frost’s work is strengthened by her respect for and collaboration with the Myaamia people as well as her inclusion of a rich array of resources, from the epigraph by Myaamia Chief Mihsihkinaahkwa (“Little Turtle”) and the map of the Miami homeland at the front of the novel to the notes, glossary of Myaamia words, and acknowledgements at its conclusion. Cooper does not appear to have sought involvement from or built connections with the Wampanoag peoples. Ironstrack testifies to Frost’s collaboration with the Myaamia community, explaining that SALT “was partly a product of a collaborative effort that included Myaamia people living in the Fort Wayne area, the Fort Wayne Historical Society, and the staff of the Myaamia Center.” Anita Silvey concurs, explaining in her blog entry on SALT that “For over twenty years ... [Frost] has been learning about the history and present-day culture of the Miami people. ... [S]he has attended cultural events and academic conferences and has enjoyed the friendship of many Miami people. Consequently, Salt exhibits the best attributes of historical fiction — a sense of history, a sense of story, and a sense of audience.”

The novels addressed here are constructed on a premise that Cooper shared — that “American settings and history ... could be made to serve fiction” (Peck 1). All three have received starred reviews, been named to state children’s choice award programs, won awards, and inspired lesson plans. 4 They demonstrate to varying degrees that James Fenimore Cooper’s characterizations, formulas, and attitudes continue to influence and inspire literature for young readers well into the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, the Leatherstocking Tales themselves are increasingly omitted from school curricula. None are included as Common Core “exemplar” texts, and while Scholastic and a few other online “teacher resource” venues include materials for The Last of the Mohicans, there is scant additional evidence to suggest that Cooper’s work is regularly taught. In more than 1500 reviews of The Last of the Mohicans on Goodreads, readers occasionally reference having studied the novel in high school (or having encountered abridged versions as children), but the vast majority take up the novel because of Michael Mann’s 1992 film. The Cooper Society already provides numerous online support resources for teaching Cooper’s works, but it may be productive for the Society to continue to study and publicize connections between his oeuvre and twenty-first century historical fiction for young readers.

Works Cited

  • Abel, Midge B. “American Indian Life as Portrayed in Children’s Literature.” Elementary English 50.2 (Feb 1973): 202-208. Print.
  • Bird, Elizabeth. “Review of the Day: Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper.” A Fuse #8 Production. School Library Journal. October 23, 2013. Web. Accessed May 18, 2015.
  • Cart, Michael. ” Salt.” Booklist 109.19/20 (Jan. 2013): 76. Print.
  • Clark, Robert. “The Last of the Iroquois: History and Myth in James Fenimore Cooper’s: The Last of the Mohicans.” Poetics Today 3.4 (Autumn 1982): 115 -134. Print.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757. Ed. James Franklin Beard. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983. Print.
  • Cooper, Susan. Ghost Hawk. New York: Margaret K. McElderry, 2014. Print.
  • Edgar, Gregory [“RevWar author”]. “Praise with Corrections [Review of Woods Runner].” Amazon. Mar 10, 2010. Web. Accessed May 12, 2015.
  • Franklin, Wayne. “The Wilderness of Words in The Last of the Mohicans.” New Critical Essays on The Last of the Mohicans. Ed. H. Daniel Peck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 25- 45. Print.
  • Frost, Helen. SALT: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War. New York: Frances Foster, 2013. Print.
  • Ironstrack, George. “FAQ’s for SALT: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War.” Aacimotaatiiyankwi: A Myaamia Community Blog. Nov. 12, 2013. Web. Accessed April 22, 2015.
  • Lawson-Peebles, Robert. “The Lesson of the Massacre at Fort William Henry.” New Critical Essays on The Last of the Mohicans. Ed. H. Daniel Peck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 115-38. Print.
  • Lerner, Adam B. “AP U.S. History controversy becomes a debate on America.” Politico 21 Feb. 2015. Web. Accessed 18 May 2015.
  • Long, Joanna Rudge. “Rev. of Salt.” The Horn Book Magazine 89.4 (Jul/Aug 2013): 127. Print.
  • LRK. “Good but Biased [Review of Ghost Hawk].” Amazon. Aug. 24, 2013. Web. Accessed May 18, 2015.
  • Martin, Terence. “From Atrocity to Requiem: History in The Last of the Mohicans.” New Critical Essays on The Last of the Mohicans. Ed. H. Daniel Peck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 47-65. Print.
  • Paulsen, Gary. Woods Runner. New York: Ember, 2011. Print.
  • Peck, H. Daniel. “Introduction.” New Critical Essays on The Last of the Mohicans. Ed. H. Daniel Peck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 1-22. Print.
  • Quealy-Gainer, Kate. “Review of Ghost Hawk.” Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books 67.3 (Nov. 2013): 145-46. Print.
  • Reese, Debbie. “Initial Thoughts about Helen Frost’s Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War.” American Indians in Children’s Literature. Oct. 13, 2013. Additions added March 3, 2014. Web. Accessed 10 April 2015.
  • ------. “Reading: Part One of Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk.” American Indians in Children’s Literature. June 5, 2013. Web. Accessed 3 April 2015.
  • ------. “Where Would We Be without Whites Who Like Indians? Or, a Critical Look at Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk.” American Indians in Children’s Literature. Oct. 15, 2013. Web. Accessed 3 April 2015.
  • Schwebel, Sara L. Child-Sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2011. Print.
  • Silvey, Anita. ” Salt.” Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac. Sept. 5, 2013. Web. Accessed April 22, 2015.
  • Sixpack, DJ Joe. “The Colonies Are Rising [review of Ghost Hawk].” Amazon. Sept. 4, 2013. Web. Accessed May 18, 2015.
  • Strauss, Valerie. “College Board Says It ‘Revised’ Controversial AP U.S. History Framework (Update).” The Washington Post Oct. 1, 2014. Web. Accessed 18 May 2015.
  • Woods Runner.” Kirkus Reviews 78.1 (Jan. 1, 2010): 47. Print.
  • Woods Runner.” Parentdish [AOL-Blog]. Mar. 3, 2010. Web. Accessed April 22, 2015.


1 Recent historical literature includes the following, in addition to the works discussed in this essay: Patricia Reilly Giff’s Storyteller (2010); Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Jefferson’s Sons: A Founding Father’s Secret Children (2011); Avi’s Sophia’s War: A Tale of the Revolution (2012); Robert Byrd’s Electric Ben: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (2012); Nathan Hale’s One Dead Spy (2012); Selene Castrovilla’s Revolutionary Friends: General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette (2013); and Russell Freedman’s Becoming Ben Franklin/p (2013), among others.

2 For a useful survey of significant critical responses to Cooper’s characterizations of Native characters, see Peck (particularly pp. 6-8) and Clark.

3 See, for example, Lerner and Strauss.

4 Woods Runner received multiple starred reviews, appeared on at least eleven state readers’ choice awards, and won a Parents Choice Award. Ghost Hawk earned multiple starred reviews, appears on state readers’ choice award lists in such states as California, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, was selected as a Junior Library Guild Selection, received a Parents’ Choice Award in 2013, and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2014. SALT appears on “Best of” lists generated by the New York Public Library and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. One of Booklist’s “Top 30 Choices for the K-8 Classroom,” it received the International Reading Association’s 2014 Notable Books for a Global Society Award, among other honors.