I picked up a used book at a second-hand store not long ago. Boys of the Border, written by Mary P. Wells Smith, a 1954 reprint of a story originally published in 1907. It caught my eye because of the dust jacket art (see illustration below, no explanation needed), and because the inside cover had a hand-drawn map of the Mohawk Trail, in western Massachusetts, during the French-and-Indian War, when these frontier settlements were no more than scattered farmsteads, with the occasional fortified log palisade. Mary Prudence Wells Smith was well-respected in her lifetime, the author of several successful YA series, Boys of the Border the third in her Old Deerfield story cycle. I'm embarrassed to say I'd never heard of her, despite having a common curiosity about the history of that neck of the woods.
It was a Leap Year. February 29th, 1704. In the early morning, a raiding party of French, Abenaki, and Iroquois attacked the small town of Deerfield, on the Connecticut River. They burned and looted houses, killed forty-seven people, and took 109 captives. They marched them 300 miles north to Quebec.
89 of the captives survived, and over the next two years, 60 of them were ransomed back. Others chose to stay in Canada, most famously the Rev. John Williams' daughter Eunice, who married a Mohawk. Rev. Williams wrote a hugely successful book, The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion, framing the story as instructive of God's providence. In a larger context, it becomes the primal American fiction.
(John Demos published The Unredeemed Captive in 1994, the title a play on Rev. Williams' own. Demos explains the captivity narrative as a racial and cultural paradigm, and not least as gender politics. It could be the Red Man, it could be the Yellow Peril, it could be Mandingo. The story turns on rescue from defilement. It's also clearly, and unapologetically, about the triumph of an enlightened tribe or race over a primitive and degraded one.)
Leaving aside Mark Twain's hysterically irreverent essay about him, it has to be admitted that James Fenimore Cooper is the first American novelist, in that he tells American stories, liberated from a European sensibility. Twain himself is a legatee and beneficiary of Cooper's. Huck Finn is completely American, but his literary forebear is Natty Bumppo. Cooper's romances have all of the generic conventions of the period, nor does he have much fluency or stagecraft, and yet he's engaging. What he brings to the table is conviction. He's got authority. Cooper knows the architectural foundation of his books is Manifest Destiny.
The captive narrative many of us are most familiar with is John Ford's 1956 movie The Searchers - and the novel by Alan Le May. The story is said to be based on the actual kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker by the Comanche. Nine when she was taken, she grew up Comanche, married, and had a family. Her eldest son, Quanah, became one of the last great war chiefs of the Comanche nation. She was recaptured by U.S. cavalry and Texas Rangers in a raid 24 years later, but never reintegrated into white culture. In truth, she wasn't in need of rescue.
The Searchers, for all its savagery, is about reconciliation, something both Eunice Williams and Cynthia Ann Parker stubbornly resisted. America, too, seems unreconciled, our vast interior a dark unknown, our captive imagination unredeemed, an unreliable narrative.