My Favourite Things: Historical Fiction Edition – The Last of the Mohicans

Whew! What a title! And it’s probably been so long that you’ve forgotten what My Favourite Things actually is. If so, you can refresh your memory here.

Now, let’s see how well this will actually live up to the promise of the original post.

[WARNING: The following review contains major spoilers. Read at your own peril.]

Mark Twain, who held Cooper’s writing ability in some contempt, once said regarding Cooper’s novel, The Deerslayer, that “Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in “Deerslayer,” and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.”* Ouch. Yet in spite of his supposed poor writing, one tale of Cooper’s has stood the test of time, is still read, and has even been made into multiple movies. That is Last of the Mohicans.

Before we get into the review itself, what is the book about? Good question. “Deep in the forests of upper New York State, the brave woodsman Hawkeye (Natty Bumppo) and his loyal Mohican friends Chingachgook and Uncas become embroiled in the bloody battles of the French and Indian War. The abduction of the beautiful Munro sisters by hostile savages, the treachery of the renegade brave Magua, the ambush of innocent settlers, and the thrilling events that lead to the final tragic confrontation between rival war parties create an unforgettable, spine-tingling picture of life on the frontier. And as the idyllic wilderness gives way to the forces of civilization, the novel presents a moving portrayal of a vanishing race and the end of its way of life in the great American forests.”**

So why do I love this book so much? As I re-read it, I found many reasons. One of the biggest reasons was the theme, but we’ll get to that later. Though some of Cooper’s descriptions drive me up the wall (which we’ll also address later), I love the way he describes his characters. Consider this description of supporting character David Gamut: “The industry and movements of the rider were not less remarkable than those of the ridden. At each change in the evolutions of the latter, the former raised his tall person in the stirrups; producing, in this manner, by the undue elongation of his legs, such sudden growths and diminishings of the stature, as baffled every conjecture that, in consequence of the ex parte application of the spur, one side of the mare appeared to journey faster than the other; and that the aggrieved flank was resolutely indicated by unremitted flourishes of a bushy tail, we finish this picture of horse and man.” (pg 14) For me, descriptions like this that give such a vivid picture of the character increase my interest in the character and make me anxious to see more about them (and more interesting descriptions!). And it’s certainly more interest-producing for the reader than “a man with black hair and blue eyes” (guilty!).

The second thing that a writer can learn from Cooper is, unfortunately, not always applicable, and that is that giving the readers knowledge that the characters do not have can build suspense. Knowing that at least one Indian is following the party, while the party themselves do not know, increases the reader’s desire to know what happens next. When will they find out that they are being observed? What will happen to them? This is not as applicable as the previous point, obviously, since it requires the narrative to be either third person omniscient, or to have multiple third person POVs.

Another thing that is good in stories is well-placed humour. I personally like dry humour, and consider it more appropriate than ROFL-type humour in a book whose main purpose is not to make you laugh. An example in Last of the Mohicans is when Hawkeye speaks of the Indian practice of naming people in a way that matches their character, and contrasts it to European practices by saying, “The greatest coward I ever knew was called Lyon; and his wife, Patience, would scold you out of hearing in less time than a hunted deer would run a rod.” (pg. 52)

Another good writerly trick that Cooper uses to keep his readers interested is suspense relieved by surprise. As the Mohicans, Hawkeye, and Major Heyward, the love interest of the younger Munro sister, are tracking the kidnapped sisters, Major Heyward thinks he sees a camp of hostile Indians. Their camp is made up of round houses, but seems mostly deserted except for sudden, quick movements from one place to another, and he sees a couple Indians on all fours dragging something behind them. Suddenly, an Indian, supposedly hostile, appears, also watching the camp. Hawkeye joins Heyward and is about to attack the Indian, but stops short when he realizes what is really going on. The next chapter reveals that Heyward’s overactive imagination changed a beaver colony into a native camp, and that the Indian was actually David Gamut, who had been kidnapped with the sisters.

One of the big reasons why I like Last of the Mohicans is the theme, that of sacrifice. While themes are sometimes hard to pick out of novels, this one is obvious. I counted at least seven different instances of sacrifice throughout the novel, all of them related to the sacrifice of life. These included: the Munro sisters helping Hawkeye and the Mohicans to escape when capture by the hostile Iroquois was imminent; Uncas’s refusal much later in the novel to escape capture and leave Hawkeye to be killed by the Iroquois; Hawkeye’s willingness to die in order to save Cora from being taken by Magua for his wife; and Uncas reckless attempt to save Cora from Magua’s knife, which resulted in both their death.

I have a number of other reasons, but this post is gigantically long already, so let’s move on to what I don’t like and what a writer can learn from that.

There are two things that I do not like about the book, the first being the extended landscape descriptions. While landscape descriptions that took up a page or more were common for the Romantic writers, they are not something that go over well with the modern reader. Forget about telling me about every individual sparkle on Lake Horican, I want to know what the characters are doing there! While descriptions are great, we as writers need to make sure we do not overuse or overextend them.

The second thing is the not infrequent forays into history lessons. At one point, Cooper spent a number of pages detailing how the armies’ failure to consider occupying the hills would affect them in the later Revolutionary War, and how travel would be difficult for the British armies during said war. Tangents such as these only serve to pull one’s readers out of the story and, if they are on the impatient side, to flip a number of pages to get to the “good stuff.”

In spite of those two things and Twain’s literary disgust, Last of the Mohicans*** is a book with a story that I thoroughly enjoy. In fact, I have no particular regard for Twain’s novels, but would dearly like to read more of Cooper’s. Take that, Samuel Clemens.

*Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses (An amusing read, if you like a good laugh)

**From the Amazon page, because I was too lazy to write my own summary. 😉

***If you are interested in reading Last of the Mohicans, the ebook version can be downloaded free. This post wasn’t exactly supposed to be a plug to read the book, but hey, it’s free!

Thanks to Jeremiah Stiles for his test-reading assistance. =)

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