The Spy, by James Fenimore Cooper Popular Library Edition, 350pgs My rating: 5.7 out of 10
When Mark Twain warns you about an author whose book you have in hand, you know the book you are about to read may be a bit annoying. Twain wrote a 19 point critique of Cooper’s book The Deerslayer, a critique ou can find online by googling “Mark Twain” and “Deerslayer”. Reading these 19 points, Twain seems awfully harsh, but I do recall how long it took to slog through that book and that the characters and dialog were pretty raw throughout the book. Well, The Spy is about as bad as Twain said The Deerslayer was. It took almost a whole week to read a little more than 300 pages, a sad reading rate for me. Chapters just end abruptly with no transition or scene resolution (imagine in a play if halfway through a scene the actors just all stood up and walked off- that’s the effect). The women are intelligent and strongminded, except when it is convenient for them to weap, faint, or otherwise suddenly forget they are intelligent and strongminded. The dialog is often so hard to follow that I am not always sure Cooper knew who was saying what. Frankly the man needed a good editor.
However, unlike Twain’s assessment of The Deerslayer, I must say there is a plot to The Spy, and a fairly good one. A young man in the British army goes home to see his father and sisters, and finds that the continental army is encamped nearby, so that he has to disguise himself to reach his father’s house. He is discovered and captured, and tried as a spy, for which the penalty would be death. Two men who work as super-secret agents are involved with the case, and an officer from each side of the war has a fiance in the family, making for a soap-operatic drama as the sisters try to save their brother and all the men, including their brother, have too much honor to just let him go and forget about the mess. I won’t say more on the plot, because I’d hate to spoil the suspense, but the plot, with better editing, could have been the core of a great story.
Will I read more of James Fenimore Cooper’s books? Probably. But, one of these days I am taking my red pen to one of his novels to make a well-edited version. The result would not be something I could publish, even just on bubblews or my blog, since it would be a derivative work andone that blurs the line between original work and plagarism, but for my own satisfaction and editing practice, I’d love to read a well-edited version of one of his stories. I did appreciate The Spy a bit more while watching documentaries about the American War for Independence (American Revolution). Cooper does give an almost modern account of that era, noting tensions and issues that don’t always make it into school history textbooks, and he has some good stories, even if they need a lot of polishing.