Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

26 March 2013

He has . . . endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontier, the merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.
The Declaration of Independence

I'm not quite sure how to begin this post. I normally try to adopt a professional and coherent tone when I write up book reviews, but as my feelings about The Last of the Mohicans are certainly not professional and anything but coherent, it's going to be a difficult task to translate them onto the page. If you were to ask me absentmindedly what I loved most about this book, I would have a horrible time of it trying to pin my opinion on one word. The setting is both lush and savage. The romance is pure and sacrificial. The heroism is heart-wrenching. The battles and skirmishes are horrific and bloody. The characters remain forever branded on your heart. It is a story of such journeys, kidnappings, rescues, escapes, massacres, and sacrifices as cannot be put into words. Upon finishing it, I could only form one thought: "Oh, such a book!"

Such a book, indeed.

The Last of the Mohicans
The Last of the Mohicans By James Fenimore Cooper
*Summary taken from the back cover

Set in 1757 during the fierce French and Indian wars, Cooper's classic novel of adventure follows an android scout and his companions as they weave through the lush and spectacular wilderness of upstate New York, fighting to save the beautiful daughters of a fort commander from a treacherous Huron renegade.

With its death-defying chases and teeth-clenching suspense, this historical romance established many archetypes of American frontier fiction: the brave, skillful loner (Hawkeye), who rejects white civilization while aiding the settlers who spread it; the noble savage (Chingachgook) who becomes his deepest friend; a plot involving chases, epic battles, and lovely heroines (Cora and Alice Munro) menaced by an Indian renegade (Magua); and the central role played by the most important "character" of all, the awesomely beautiful but dangerous wilderness.

My Thoughts: Contrary to the impression you may have gained from my brief introduction, I did not always find Cooper's novel intriguing. The first one hundred pages in particular were slow and, to quote Abigail, dull as sand. (Just one of the reasons it took me about three months to finish this book.) The author allows no check on his verbosity, and subjects his reader to long historical discussions and descriptions as a result. It wasn't until my tutorial released for spring break that I gave myself a certain amount of pages to read per day, determined to finish the book at long last. What originally started as a personal assignment soon became much more, however, as I found it difficult to put this book down, lest Cora and Alice meet some new atrocity while I tarried. Though he takes his time getting around to it, Cooper definitely knows how to layer the tension and intrigue.

One of this book's most controversial facets is the way in which it portrays the Indians of colonial New York. The Last of the Mohicans presents a view of the Native American savage both old and new in nature. The author shows him in his most violent element, scalping enemies and friends alike with cold-hearted indifference, and then gives the man an artificial sort of holiness above that of the "pale-faces" because he is better acquainted with the ways of nature. The characters themselves are rather ambiguous on this subject, especially Hawkeye, who both commends and convicts the "red man" for his ways. Such an image falls short of the modern opinion, which depicts the Indian as an innocent and forsaken creature who was forced from his land by the domineering white man. While it certainly sounds heartbreaking and tragic (and perfectly fulfills their political agenda — shocking, no?), history's records do not agree with this faulty depiction. Cooper displays his Native Americans as capable of both shocking brutality and heart-rending sacrifice, painting an image conjured less by fantasy and more by reality. A good portion of the book is drenched (and I mean, drenched) in the violence and gore produced by the natives, but it does not keep the author from dropping obscure references to an Indian's supposedly superior knowledge and understanding. These opposing views are not easily reconciled with one another, and the worldview they present is ambivalent at best.

Pros: The Last of the Mohicans remains the quintessential example of a historical romance. Despite the slow beginning, it soon draws the reader in with its depictions of daring escapes, bloody massacres, valiant sacrifices, fearless heroes, lovely heroines, and every other element that classifies a page-turner. Even Cooper's prose, tedious at times though it may be, lends a sort of arresting beauty to the feral wilderness he describes. The male characters are gallant and fearless, repeatedly setting aside their own lives for the security of Cora and Alice. In the same vein, the two sisters act in a manner both modest and feminine, and entirely appropriate in nature. In Cora especially I found a refreshing balance between the fainting maiden of old and the overbearing feminist of modern culture. Both demure and strong-willed, she remains the voice of reason throughout the story, and her pure, wholehearted faith in God stood in sharp contrast with the shaky, practically nonexistent dogma of Hawkeye.

Cons: Besides the graphic violence native to its subject matter, the author also presents a vague image of morality between the spiritual clash of Yahweh, the One True God, and the Indians' Great Spirit. Hawkeye claims that the two are one and the same, and while they share a few similarities, such a view is obviously false. David Gamut, a devout Protestant and master of psalmody, is made to look quite ridiculous in his seeming lack of knowledge of all matters concerning warfare and wood-dwelling. To borrow others' words, he's so heavenly minded that he's no earthly good. Hawkeye also debates whether there will be a separate Heaven for the white man and the red man. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
I recommend this book for ages 15+ because of the violent content and confused morality.

A Bit O' Reading For the Day:
“History, like love, is so apt to surround her heroes with an atmosphere of imaginary brightness.” — The Last of the Mohicans
P.S. In case you're wondering, yes, you are in the right place, though it may not seem so at first. Brianna Wachter, a dear friend of mine and graphic-designing extraordinaire, kindly installed a new design for Literary Lane, and I must say that I am quite satisfied with the result. As a sort of heads-up, I'll be moving over to a custom domain in a couple days, which means that when you visit my blog, it will redirect to the new address.

10 epistles:

  1. Oh, I'm so glad you liked this book! I know people either love it or find the verbosity far too off-putting. I'm of the former category and it makes me shiver with pleasure to find someone who is there with me. Like you, I did have to drag myself through the first chapters: Cooper was not initially gripping in the least and it was a school assignment, to boot. But once the pace began to quicken - once the characters won me over - I could hardly put the book down. Every time someone was captured, or someone fired a gun, or there was some act of treachery, my heart was in my throat.

    And that ending? No spoilers, but...!

    Lovely new blog design, by the way! Very classy and understated, which is just what I like best.

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    1. Oh, the ending — the ending! We may have to converse over email about that, for the sake of those reading my blog who have not read the book. After I finished the last page, I had to set the book down, slow my heart rate, and sort through my jumbled thoughts for a good ten minutes. (Of course, one of my younger sisters would choose that moment to come into the room and start rambling about something rather inconsequential — I'm afraid my reply was a bit too short and succinct at the moment, due to the nature of my swirling emotions.) Reading this novel put me in such a turmoil, but it was well worth it.

      Thank you! I'm glad you like it. I'm quite pleased with the new look myself. :)

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    2. I must add to this story that afterwards Elizabeth stumbled over to me (keeled over of course), and begged me to pull the daggers from her heart.

      Hmm, methinks I ought to read this book sooner rather than later.

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  2. I thought this was a very good review -- I read this book several years ago, and everything you said brought back the fond memories of when I read it. I had a hard time getting it into at first, too, but the latter parts were captivating. The characters still stick with me, especially Cora (amazing Cora, one of my favorite literary heroines!), Hawkeye, and David Gamut. And I'll join with you all in exclaiming, "Oh, the ending!" :)
    Overall, it doesn't rank very high on my favorite classics list, (mainly because of the narrative drag and violence) but there is a reason it's a classic. Very worthwhile reading.

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    1. I'm glad you liked the review! It would be dishonest of me to say it was an enjoyable read all the way through, but I'd certainly deem it worthwhile. Cora, I think, will always remain one of my favorite literary heroines. She possesses such immeasurable beauty of spirit, mind, and body that one cannot help but love and admire her.

      Thanks for commenting, Kelsey! It's always nice to meet fellow bloggers who share the same taste in books. :)

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  3. Having heard a lot of praise from Abigail on this book, and then now reading your compelling review of The Last of the Mohicans (p.s. your reviews are always very enjoyable and helpful, Elizabeth, no fear!), I feel my desire to read this book has grown with leaps and bounds. It sounds so intense and heart-wrenching, and on a topic that would interest me - the verbosity would be a little off-putting but if the second half is compelling, I believe I just might have the courage to wade through it! But, as with most of my 'prerequisite questions' before I read a new book, I am wondering just how much and to what degree is there romance in the content of the book? In 'mildness' would you compare it with 'A Tale of Two Cities', or less or more? Or is it very different?

    Nice new blog-design by the way, Elizabeth! It is quite elegant and coffee-ish and I particularly like the classy background. The style will have to grow on me, but I am beginning to quite like it. On a blog-ish note, what does a custom domain entail?

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    1. Intense and heart-wrenching it is, but I think you would enjoy the subject matter. Cooper's prose isn't much more difficult than Dickens' — you only have to make it through the beginning, and you'll be set. No need to worry on the romance front, either, as the affection between Duncan Heyward and Alice is kept as chaste as that between Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette. The only warning I would give pertains to the violence, as it can be rather excessive at times. The author is just very blunt. The choice is up to you, of course — if you'd care for a more detailed description, I can email you. I'd highly recommend reading it, though!

      It took me some time to adjust to the new look as well, but I love it now. A custom domain is a blog address without "blogspot" in the link; when I change mine, my blog will redirect from lizzyslovelylibrary.blogspot.com to livingonliterarylane.com.

      Thanks for commenting, dear!

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    2. well, I am glad about the romance =). I don't know that I mind some violence in a novel so I think I should not be too bothered with it (I have read all the Sherlock Holmes stories, and lots of modern biographies of Christian persecution which is unpleasant to say the least) - though I normally dislike too much explicit gory violence. Hmm, well, I was planning on sending over an e-mail to you anyway this weekend, so maybe we can talk about it then!

      Thanks for explaining about custom domain. Does it cost any money to change it?

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  4. I'm reading this book for school right now. And I completely agree with all the other comments about the beginning. Ugh... I probably would have stopped reading it, but it was for literature. So I couldn't just quit. Anyway, I only have about three chapters left, and I'm pleased to be able to say that I've completely fallen in love with the characters (my favorite being Cora). Some of those scenes left me feeling a bit woozy... especially the descriptions of "braining" someone. Oh, well, though--Cooper can write action, that's for sure! :)
    ~Rebekah

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    1. I've had to trudge through many difficult pieces because they were required reading for my literature course, so I understand exactly how you feel. It's worth it in the end, though! I'm pleased you're liking it better now — the last few chapters are some of the best in the whole book. Do enjoy! (And be sure to have tissues handy.)

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