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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cooper's Deerslayer: finished after 43 years

In the farmhouse where my grandparents lived, there was an attic with a small book closet at one end. The only light was a naked light bulb protruding from a sloping gable; the only way to turn it on was to step into the darkness and grope blindly upward for the pull-string. My sister and I did not frequent it--there were many less scary places to play.

But around age 11 or 12, when I began wanting, badly, to own books, I visited the old book closet to see what treasure it might yield. It was still unnerving--the crowded orange-crate shelves tipped and crooked, dusty books slipping off them into more dust, and creepy unseen creatures, real or imagined, retreating as the light tinked on. But it was also rewarding. Right out in front was a green-backed set of novels-- the Leatherstocking Saga of James Fenimore Cooper, still standing in order: The Deerslayer. The Last of The Mohicans. The Pathfinder. The Pioneers. The Prairie. Very excited, I gathered them up and took them downstairs to ask Grandpa if I could have them.

I found him in his big blue chair by the lace-curtained front window and waited while he looked the books over, wiped a little dust off them, checked the title--"Hmmh!"--of each one. Perhaps he was thinking how little leisure time farming chores had left him for reading the books under his own roof, for they lived not only in the attic book room but in almost every room in the house. And then he said, "Take 'em home!"

And I'm sure he must have said something funny about them, too, and made me laugh, if only I could remember it, because that's what he did so often: he'd find us doing something unremarkable, like gazing up at the stars, (because they were so much brighter up north, in the country, in the cold) and he'd just casually pay out a remark-- "Well, don't let the night fall on you," --and then wander off and be manifestly thinking about something else while you were still cracking up at the crazy unexpectedness of him.

The Deerslayer had been tortured: mice had nibbled or scratched away a wedge of pages--you couldn't read a whole line of text until after the third chapter. My mother was not excited about having it in the house. But I wasn't so fastidious: it was a book! One of a matched set of books! By a famous author! They got the best spot on my own bookshelf, which by coincidence was also an orange crate, but painted and sturdy, and I have treasured them from that day to this.

Though I had to buy a new copy of Deerslayer when I finally decided to read it this year, both the stories and those particular books are precious to me. As I was reading, just a few hours ago, the very exciting ending of the story, I pictured my aunts, my uncles and my father, all departed now, reading it before me and telling me with that sly half-smile they all shared, "Yes, this is the good part."

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