Cheating Natty Bumppo and the Kit-Kat Barter


A big ol' fat cheater. That was me. It was only the once, and yes, I still feel the piercing pangs of guilt for it. But I had my reasons.

Natty Bumppo drove me to it.

That's right, I said Natty Bumppo. Also called "Leatherstocking." Or "Hawk-Eye." Or, probably, "Chuck." The main dude in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. In the world of literary names, I'd say Natty Bumppo perches on top. Right up there with Martin Chuzzlewit, Mr. Fezziwig and Thursday Next.

It's fun to say. Say it with me now: "Natty Bumppo..."

But as far as stories go, Last of the Mohicans, for me, was harder to get down than week-old bread-- and just about as flavorful.

Admittedly, I haven't revisited this classic since my impatient youth. But at the time, the mind boggled and then eventually just bogged in a chapter that seemed entirely devoted to describing a few trees. No matter how much I read, I was simply unable to get out of the woods.

I'd tug at the narrator's sleeve.... Mention it looked like rain.... Even point out how dark it seemed to be getting, and still, the narrator just kept running on about what the woods looked like.

I think the narrator might have been my grandfather.

Grandpa Keith was a stand-up fellow, a great cook, an avid sportsman with a deep love of nature- and a passion for detail. His tales of hunting, fishing and hiking could go on for hours, leaving no river, no tree, no stone undescribed.

Plus, his stories tended to be nested-- so just about the time he'd take us to the part where the 12-point buck walked into the scene, he'd backtrack...

And compare it to a previous 12-point buck moment...

Or a time he'd seen another autumn that had the same vibrant leaves...

Or segue into the life story of the buddy who was hunting with him...

Or a particularly good batch of venison.

Leaving the threads of the first story flapping in the breeze, to weave in the details of a second. A third. A flashback...

A flash sideways.

Reading Last of the Mohicans was like a long holiday weekend with just Grandpa and me.

The problem with getting tangled up in undergrowth of the forest, however, was our tenth grade English teacher still had this funny idea she wanted to test us on it.

So the morning of the test came, and there I was, sitting in my class with detailed knowledge of leaf and stone, and absolutely no idea what else happened in the book.

I turned to my friend Ken, with fear draining the color from my face. "Did you actually read this? What happened in it?" In sheer desperation I added, "If you tell me what happened, I'll give you two blocks of my Kit-Kat bar."

Well, any kid at the time knew, Kit-Kat bars were premium currency. An offer of even a few blocks was certainly worth information.

"Deal," said Ken. And he relayed to me a Ken's Notes version of what happened in the forest. He told me all about Natty Bumppo, and Uncas and the French and Indian War.

Well, as luck would have it, it was an essay question-- "Describe the character of Natty Bumppo."

I recalled Ken's words. I filled in the logical bits. I wiped sweat from my brow and used vague wording where necessary. Soon, the bell rang and we had to turn in our papers.

Oh, the guilt I experienced in the days between handing in my test, and getting the results. I was almost certain my teacher would take one look at that paper and see into the empty core of my soul.

My Natty Bumppo was a sham, bought for the price of a two-block candybar. Soon, this would filter down to my mother-- who had convinced me by about age five that she could read minds. There would be parent-teacher conferences, in-school suspension and, worst of all-- television privileges revoked until I graduated high school.

I got an "A" on the paper.

And the moral of the story? Well, it's not that cheater's win. I mean, I hadn't cheated before and I didn't do it again-- largely due to 40% too much conscience and 60% kid paranoia. But sometimes, those literary classics drive a hard bargain...

If Manhattan were bought for a few bucks in beads, in retrospect, two sticks of Kit-Kat doesn't seem too bad a value.

---
Do you folks recall a classic book that you struggled with? I'd love to hear about it.

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20 comments:

Shirley said...

The Count of Monte Cristo. Flunked the test but it's one of my favorite books. I think the teacher had it in for me though. :) Seriously, the teacher didn't like me.

Jenn Thorson said...

Shirley- "The Count" is one heckuva long book, too! I read it as an adult, where I think I was better able to handle it than if I'd been a teen.

Don'tcha love it when you pretty much SENSE a teacher doesn't like you?

PS- If you haven't gotten to see it, "The Count of Monte Cristo," as a film with Guy Pearce and Jim Caviezel is really good.

papercages said...

No book comes to mind but I think I might be ralated to your grandpa.

Jenn Thorson said...

Papercages- Well, you get credit for the refreshing self-awareness, anyway! :)

Anonymous said...

A Tale of Two Cities... I tried...oh, how I tried...but I gave up after finally being introduced to the second character in the book...all seven, ungodly, mind numbing pages of descriptive introduction. This was the only time in my scholastic life I broke down and bought the Cliff Notes. To this day I have no clue what that darn thing is about and I don't have the mental or emotional stamina to ever try to actually read it.

Sue

Jenn Thorson said...

Sue- Not my favorite Dickens novel, either, really, though I tend to like Dickens. I think it's interesting how these books-- love or hate 'em-- gain our emotional investment.

As a writer, it's sort of exciting thinking you can elicit such passion from readers-- even if they look back on your work years later as stressful and unreadable! :)

Da Old Man said...

Fathers and Sons. Oy vey. It is a short book, but prety painful. Struggled through the first chapter or so, went right to the campus book store and bought the Cliff notes.
Even hated the Cliff notes.
Was able to put together a credible review of it, so aced it and the course.

Kirsten said...

I couldn't stand getting through, "The Old Man and the Sea". But, then again, I couldn't get through much in my younger years!

Jenn Thorson said...

Da Old Man- Oh gosh-- Russian nihilism... no wonder. Ah, when even the Cliff's Notes make you ache, that's pretty bad. You should have told them in tribute to the nihilistic approach in the book, you didn't believe in writing reviews. :)

Kirsten- Oh, yes, for everyone who loves Hemingway, there are we who are not so enthralled. I have been afeared to read larger Hemingway works after my Hemingway "Hills Like White Elephants" saturation in college. I should probably give it a go once, just to see if I've changed my mindset about it.

Greg said...

I seem to recall there was an entire chapter in Les Miserables about the Paris sewer system...but having seen the musical and knowing there were some critical scenes in the sewer coming up made the lengthy parenthetical break a little easier to get through.

Actually, Les Mis had a bunch of chapters like that...where you got all this background/technical info that was going to briefly figure into some future scene. I wonder if your grandpa helped write that...

I have to say, though, I still loved every unabridged word of that book.

I can't say the same about Arms and the Man.

Jenn Thorson said...

Greg- Heh-- Grandpa only worked on "Les Mis" if there were deer in the sewers and trout fishing along the Seine. :)

Grandpa was not a "Les Mis" kinda guy. He once got a French Dip sandwich, with beautiful rare roast beef, and made some comment about the cow still mooing. No, Grandpa might've been Natty Bumppo material, but not Jean ValJean. :)

I'll have to look up Arms and the Man, I'm not familiar with that one.

unfinishedrambling said...

I feel like such a girl today: Me too!

I also hated The Last of the Mohicans. Luckily, I didn't have to read it for class, but just tried to read it on my own, because it was one of those classic American novels that everyone is supposed to read. I can't say I recall a thing about it, but I remember I hated it. It was sooooo slooooooow....at least when I recently read Great Expectations, I had one a-ha moment that allowed me to get through the last 200 pages.

Jenn Thorson said...

Unfinished- Ohmigod, me too too! (Actually, I don't think I remember reading Great Expectations, I just kinda had to say that.) :)

But it's good to have a friend-in-struggle with Last of the Mohicans. Maybe I'd like it now. But at the time, it was absolutely a crusher.

Meg said...

I've tried Moby Dick and tried and tried.

As for Last of the Mohicans, great love scene with Daniel Day Lewis in the movie.

Shirley said...

I did see The Count of Monte Cristo. Very good movie. About the teacher I'm not too terribly upset her hairdo do look like someone's butt. She never washed it either. One of the kids in class threw a spit wad and it stayed in her hair all week. She was pretty sad to pay much attention to what she thought of me.

Jenn Thorson said...

Meg- Oh, yes, Moby Dick ended up being one of those for so many kids, didn't it? My group had to read "The Bridge Over San Luis Rey" instead. And that Last of the Mohicans movie made me cry. It was certainly not the book I tried to read. :)

Shirley- A spit wad for a week? Good gad. Now there's class.

Jay said...

Count me in for another Moby Dick failure! Grim, miserable excuse for a book, in my opinion.

I was lucky at school - the chosen book for 'O' level was The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy and I actually rather liked Thomas Hardy. I have most of them... have to say I never actually finished Jude the Obscure, I found that heavy going, and in the end I got tired of how hopeless the main characters were in taking charge of their own lives, and how bad they were at making decisions. But I guess that's got to be put in context.

I loved The Last of the Mohicans as a TV series. Haven't tried the book. But just as a FYI, I don't consider what you did to be cheating. It was getting someone to give you a very quick and very last-minute coaching job. YOU were the one who processed the information and wrote it down, huh? ;)

Jenn Thorson said...

Jay- Oh, if a character other than Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights ever needed therapy, it would have been "Jude the Obscure"! I hear ya. That's Thomas Hardy's philosophy of "Character is fate" at work. :)

And, well, I like your spin on my lack of cheating. I have to say, I have never once considered it that way...

Suddenly I feel so-- liberated!! :)

Melanie said...

I didn't have to read "Last of the Mohicans", but I did anyway. Don't remember a blessed thing about it.

"Tale of Two Cities" I slogged thru in high school and thought it was stupid. Read it a few years later and liked it ok.

There are only two books that come to mind that I've tried to read and ended up putting back on the library shelf unfinished. "Moby Dick" and "Anna Karenina". Er, did I spell that right?

And don't ever ask me to read Shakespeare!!! It's pointless, useless, and incomprehensible.

Jenn Thorson said...

Melanie- Oh, boy- Anna Karenina... talk about your literary challenges! And no, don't worry, Melanie, we will not ask you to read Shakespeare...

Oh, but we do have this nice volume of "War and Peace" for you to enjoy... Here: get cracking. :)