Once upon a time, adventure novels were exciting. The Last of the Mohicans was written during that time, and is probably James Fenimore Cooper's best (and certainly his most famous) novel. It tells of Natty Bumpo, a.k.a. Leatherstocking, a.k.a. Hawkeye, a.k.a. Le Longue Carabine, etc., THE American frontiersman.
Chronologically the second of the five Leatherstocking Tales (and the second to be written), The Last of the Mohicans balances an idealistic view of virgin wilderness and noble Native Americans with harsh realism that doesn't shrink from depictions of cruelty and violence. But, like any great novel, the violence is also a metaphor.
The story is simple: two young women are to be delivered to their father, Lieutenant Colonel Munro of the British Army, where he's stationed at Fort McHenry. Along the way, the girls and two men are separated from the military column with which they'd been traveling, and rescued by the last of the Mohicans—Chingachgook, his blood son Uncas, and his adopted white son, Hawkeye.
What follows are some of the most iconic adventures in American literature, from battles between Indians and colonials, to flying over waterfalls in canoes, to knife fights on cliff edges. If it's excitement you're after you'll find it; if any North American adventure story can be called action-packed, this is it.
But Cooper wasn't just out to thrill readers. On the one hand, he attempted to offer an authentic picture of the American frontier in its infancy, complete with colloquial dialect, detailed descriptions of the terrain, and careful attention to the customs of the many cultures converging in New York and Canada through armed conflict.
On the other hand, he used the exhilarating pace and violence to signify a country coming to terms with its own identity, an entire race facing exile or extinction, and the expansion of Western culture without concern for indigenous peoples. Yet we're never preached at, and Cooper's themes serve and abet the story rather than slowing it down.
This isn't Cooper's best novel by the standards imposed by literary scholars, but for readers looking for a great story, lots of action, some melancholy romance, and well-drawn characters, The Last of the Mohicans is hard to beat. In some ways it's the most American of novels, and deserves its place beside Moby-Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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