December 2, 2010 by Amy Elliott Bragg
Reading list: The Oak Openings
You may know prolific Romantic American historical novelist James Fenimore Cooper as the author of The Last of the Mohicans. He wrote a lot of eastern seaboard maritime tales, too.
Among his many books about salty sea air and the Leatherstocking, Mr. Cooper found time to write a novel that takes place in the wilds of Michigan during the War of 1812. It’s called The Oak Openings, it was published in 1848, it was illustrated by the fabulously-named Felix Octavius Carr Darley, and I’m reading it.
The noble hero of our story, Ben Le Bourdon, is a bee hunter living on the banks of the Kalamazoo River, who makes his living rooting out beehives, collecting their honey, paddling around in a canoe, tanning hides, hanging out with his dog, and practicing morally upright behavior.
One day, whilst expertly practising his craft in an opening in the oak woods, Le Bourdon by chance encounters two Indians in the woods — one a Pottawatomie, the other a Chippewa — and a drunk white man, Gershom “Whiskey Centre” Waring. They all have dinner together and then, well. You know, trouble starts. I’m only about 150 pages in at this point, but so far there have been two scalpings, two full casks of whiskey dashed on river rocks, a bear shooting, a daring rescue by the light of enemy fires in the middle of a marshy night, and a comely single maiden who daringly helps our hero commit an act of derring-do.
Cooper peppers his tale with the occasional political jab about socialism and musings on man’s true nature at odds with the corrupting influence of civilization. The bee-hunting business is all a little slow, but of course, it serves an overt allegorical purpose; as Le Bourdon ensnares the bees with their own honey, tricking them into betraying the location of their hive, he says out loud, just to fill the silence:
“So it is with us all! When we think we are in the highest prosperity, we may be nearest to a fall, and when we are poorest and humblest, we may be about to be exalted.”
I think the whole book takes place in Kalamazoo, but the characters allude to Detroit here and again. When Le Bourdon asks one of the Indians (the one he finds out is in league with the Americans and trying to deliver a message about the siege of Michilimakinac to Chicago) about the General at Detroit (Territorial Governor William Hull), the Indian answers, simply, “Hell.”
It’s funny because it turns out to be TRUE!
Seriously, though. If you can get past the righteousness delivered every 20 pages or so about the evils of liquor and the especially base rendering of the Indian characters (lots of icky pidgin English, lots of condescension to the sage and unbastardized nature of “savage” life played against lots of violence, scalping, and love of booze), it’s kind of a swashbuckling tale. And I’m still reading it! Even though I can’t figure out if this is a rollicking frontier romance, or a morality play about living a Christian life and NOT DRINKING!!! Or both.
You can read the whole book on the Internet Archive or ask for a nice old musty copy at your local library, which can probably get it to you through interlibrary loan.