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Posted November 22, 2008
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Romeo and Juliet restaged as Conanchet and Ruth: the tragedy of an Indian Chief and a Puritan Girl in 1670s Connecticut
If you liked THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, you will love James Fenimore Cooper's 1829 novel, THE WEPT OF WISH-TON-WISH. But first, let's push beyond that obscure title! "The Wept" is the "wept for" daughter of a 1676 Puritan family on the wild frontier of Connecticut. Her name is Ruth Heathcote. When seven years old, she was taken by Narragansett Indians during a raid on her home. Years later her Indian husband, the great young chief Conanchet, gives her -- long since renamed Narra-mattah -- and their baby son to her grieving parents. Fenimore Cooper wrote this moving cross-cultural love story in Switzerland. Consulting an inaccurate glossary of Indian terminology, he took "Wish-Ton-Wish" to mean the Whip-Poor-Will or American night hawk. Wish-Ton-Wish was the name given by a small band of Puritans to their settlement in a beautiful but isolated valley in the Royal Colony of Connecticut. *** <BR/><BR/>The way for Fenimore Cooper's historical novels of America had been prepared by three immigrant English literary genres: Indian captivity narratives, field reports of Indian wars and moralizing sermons by divines like Increase Mather and his son Cotton. All these elements appear powerfully in THE WEPT OF WISH-TON-WISH. What happened to young Ruth Heathcote also happened to hundreds of other young English girls and women. In Ruth's case, she weds a young chief who had first been a captive in her home around 1662. There he had been taught English and elements of Puritan Christianity by an old Roundhead soldier named Submission. The old soldier of Oliver Cromwell was hiding out from the wrath of the restored King Charles II, for Submission had been among the victorious judges condemning King Charles I to execution. *** <BR/><BR/>Cooper recreates the Puritan mindset, recorded in many sermons, that the North American wilderness is the home of Satan who will do anything, including firing up his heathen Indian subjects, to oppose and repel the English Saints now moving into New England. Marriage between white and Indian is unthinkable. But Ruth Heathcote's family nonetheless accepts their half-breed grandson as God's inscrutable will. *** <BR/><BR/>Finally, this powerful novel is also a combat mini-epic, including a fragment of King Philip's War which spilled over into Connecticut in 1675-76. The little community of Wish-Ton-Wish endures two terrible attacks, a decade apart, by vengeful Indians. The battle scenes are as vivid as anything in Cooper's other frontier tales, such as THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, THE DEERSLAYER and THE PRAIRIE. *** <BR/><BR/>This novel has a memorable supporting cast: a saucy young woman who "torments" her Puritan lover into marrying her and providing her with triplets, glimpses of the great Oliver Cromwell as a young carouser, a Puritan preacher saturated with the implacable word of God, Indians and whites determined to exterminate one another. But at its core this is Romeo and Juliet retold as Conanchet and Ruth. These two star-crossed lovers face powers far too strong to allow them to be happy together for very long: opposed dreams, memories, religions, world-views, cultures, societies, races. It is too much for them. THE WEPT OF WISH-TON-WISH is tragedy of a high order and ends along lines of tormented mental giving way under stress reminiscent of Sir Walter Scott's THE BRIDE OF LAMMERMOOR or the spiritual collapse of the Templar Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert in his duel with IVANHOE.
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Posted May 30, 2012
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Posted June 10, 2010
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