"He never forgot a favor, or forgave an injury."
Sep 26, 2009 (Updated Sep 26, 2009)
Review by Thomas Patrick Killough
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Split personalities war within Tuscarora Indian Nick/Wyandotte. Can love of his oppressor's family avert revenge?
Cons:Slower and more psychologically probing than typical Cooper adventures, notably THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS.
The Bottom Line:
From 1745 to 1795 the Willoughbys live through peace and war in a New York wilderness settlement. A complex Indian chief, Wyandotte, is goaded once too often by Captain Willoughby.
As James Fenimore Cooper wrote his way ever deeper into the second half of WYANDOTTE, his great novel of 1843, his imagination was drawn away from its numerous white and black characters. Cooper increasingly focused on its Indian hero. That brave is a Jekyll and Hyde living a century before Robert Louis Stevenson's creation. The warrior's sometime oppressor, England-born Hugh Willoughby, generally treats this Tuscarora as an inferior, degraded drunken panhandler. He is somewhat contemptuously styled Saucy Nick, Old Nick or just plain Nick.
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We meet 50 year old Nick in 1775. Every few years Nick wanders as he pleases in and out of The Hutted Knoll. That is an isolated community begun ten years earlier in a lush central New York wilderness discovered by Nick. It was also Nick who had commended its acquisition through Royal grant to ten years older Captain Willoughby. Willoughby, although at long last the heir apparent to an English baronetcy, had been orphaned young and therefore never had enough money to purchase the rank of major or lieutentant-colonel in His Majesty's 63rd Regiment of Foot.
Fortunately, Hugh's wife, America-born Wilhelmina, was financially better off and the family has enough money in 1765 to build a large fort-like "Hut" and finance settlement of a hundred or more Americans before the novel's main action begins in 1775 and carries into 1776.
The Willoughbys have a son, Robert, age 27 in May of 1775 and now a British army Major serving with General Gage in Boston. Daughter Beulah is 22. Adopted daughter Maud Meredith is 20.
Maud's parents were killed during fighting with the French. Nick the Indian was fighting at the side of Major Meredith when the latter fell. Nick loved Maud's parents, especially her father who was always notably kind and courteous to Nick and to the other Indian scouts.
But not every officer of the 63rd Regiment was so cross-culturally sensitive. The ethos of the regiment was: a flogged soldier fights better! And three times Captain Willoughby had Nick flogged, till his back bled.
The women of the Willoughby household, by contrast with its head, held the Tuscarora in high esteem. They called him by his true name, "Wyandotte," pronounced why-on-dot-TAY. This name reminded him and them that he had once been an honored chief, husband, father of a daughter and feared in battle.
But the Captain made more of the fact that his Tuscarora tribe, for reasons never explained, had expelled Nick. So he must be really bad! Wilhelmina had saved Wyandotte's life during an outbreak of smallpox. She had inoculated him. Wyandotte, without being asked, had later gone 50 miles into the forest to pick an herb which saved the life of young Bob Willoughby. Beulah and Maud showered Wyandotte with love, presents and attention.
Like a recurring knell from Mozart's Requiem, person after person worries that Indians do not take floggings as well as regular British troops. Says the novel's closest thing to a pure villain, Captain Willoughby's estate manager Joel Strider to his boss: "when an Injun does owe a grudge, he is pretty sartain to pay it, in full." And the novel's last words spoken by Robert Willoughby on a visit from England to his old family estate, the Hutted Ridge, are about Wyandotte/Nick, "He never forgot a favor, or forgave an injury."
Many times the Tuscarora, in his distinct personality as "Nick," had meditated murdering the Captain to right an ancient injustice. Always, however, his love of the three women held him back. Would it restrain him once again in 1776? Would re-defining himself as "Wyandotte" hold Nick back forever? Read WYANDOTTE and find out.=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=
There are other rich aspects to WYANDOTTE besides revenge and self-esteem contending within the breast of an Indian warrior.
-- Religion: The Willoughbys adhere to the established Church of England. But many of their dependents at the Hutted Knoll are New England Puritans. There is also a Scotsman who follows Calvin. And Mike, a lovable but dumb Irishman from Couny Leitrim, is the only Papist. When it is time to confess his sins, Mike seeks out a large stone deep in the forest to pour them out to.
-- All characters speak English. But Cooper's ear renders their numerous accents and vocabularies, sometimes to considerable comic effect.
-- Not every American during the revolt against Britain was as noble as George Washington. Several of Captain Willoughby's non-Anglican dependents conspire to convince the rebel New York government that Willoughby is a Tory. With luck, his settlement at Hutted Knoll will then be consiscated and given to them.
-- There is romance, some ending tragically. It takes Maud Meredith a few years to realize that she loves as a woman Major Robert Willoughby with whom she has been reared as a sister. But that love is no secret to Nick/Wyandotte. Maud's love for young Bob guarantees the latter extra protection by the Tuscarora.
-- Finally, there is signature Fenimore Cooper action and adventure. Not nearly as much, be it admitted, as in LAST OF THE MOHICANS or THE DEERSLAYER. But a half-hearted raid on the Hutted Knoll by Mohawks led by Americans disguised as Indians (inspired by the Boston Tea Party) is far from danger-free. As "patriotic" American residents of the Hutted Knoll desert Captain Willoughby, even Wyandotte's assistance leaves the little garrison too weak to hold out unless regular troops -- either American or British -- lift the siege.
For whatever my personal subjectivity is worth, among the dozen Cooper novels that I have read so far (of a total of 32 that Cooper wrote), WYANDOTTE is my personal favorite. The writing is sometimes convoluted and obscure. But Cooper's sympathy for Indians shines through and he can sort out like few other novelists the good and the evil that lurk in Everyman's soul. -OOO-
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