Sunday, April 21, 2013

Last of the Mohicans

Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper

At last, I have finished my Unreadable Book!  Friends, let me just warn you about this one: don't bother unless you have a really good reason.  It's been on my TBR pile for a couple of years, after a bookish friend of mine (IRL!  I have friends who like to read as much as I do!) said that it was her very favorite book.  I kept meaning to get to it, but American literature is not one of my big favorite things and somehow other books always line-jumped ahead.  This year I put it on my TBR list for Adam's challenge so that I would jolly well HAVE to read it, and...

1827 painting by Cole illustrating a scene in "Last of the Mohicans"

Last of the Mohicans is a riproaring frontier adventure with lots of action and suspense, buried under a mountain--no, a mountain range--of excessive verbiage.   Cooper was writing in the 1820s, and his prose combines a 19th-century enthusiasm for euphemism and verbosity with a remarkable lack of elegance and simplicity.  (I read some Jane Austen over the weekend and was struck with the elegance and relative brevity of her lovely prose.)

Nevertheless, Cooper's "Leatherstocking Tales" (of which this is the second) were enormously popular.  As far as I can tell, he is the originator of some of our enduring American literary types.  Natty Bumppo, who is known only as Hawkeye here, is the original wandering loner, the tough man without a family or a home who belongs to no-one but protects all those in distress.

Cooper also uses some traditional tropes: the two girls in the story are as stereotypical as they get.  Cora, the elder, is a brunette and therefore intelligent, competent, brave and passionate, but not so much an object of romance.  Alice, the younger, is fair and blonde, sensitive and sweet, and does virtually nothing but faint.  As you might expect, the brave young soldier is hopelessly in love with her and respects Cora as a friend and near-equal.  I was most forcibly reminded of The Woman in White (which, yes, post-dates this novel), but there are lots of other examples of that trope.

The story is set in the mid 18th-century, in the wilds of New York during the French and Indian War.  Cora and Alice are traveling with a soldier chaperone to join their father, who commands an English fort, but they are captured by Indians allied with the French, and together with an odd little band of friends, they travel around the wilderness having adventure after adventure.  Hawkeye and his Indian companions are their protectors, and they have a strange tag-along in the person of David, a professional psalmodist who believes that every problem can be solved by singing a hymn.

Once I got used to the prose, I did enjoy the story, but had a struggle to stay focused; it's often hard to find the sense of the plot through all the words--a real "can't see the forest for the trees" problem.  The first few pages really took me by surprise!   It took me a few weeks to read it, though it's less than 400 pages long.

I was interested to see how much respect Cooper had for the Indians whose culture he was describing.  I wasn't expecting much.  As you would expect, they are frequently described as savage, primitive, brooding, cunning, and so on, but aside from the villain of the piece, Cooper usually describes the Indian characters with much more respect than I anticipated and with recognition of injustices they are suffering.  He conveys a lot of admiration for them, in his way.

7 comments:

Monika said...

Ohhh yeah... that would probably be my Unreadable Book, too! LOL Congrats on finishing it!

jennysbooks said...

If I'd ever tried reading this unreadable book, I'm sure I'd have found it equally unreadable. We read bits of it in American Lit class in high school -- I think -- and followed it up with the extremely lovable "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" by Mark Twain. I think it will please you after having gotten through this:

http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/projects/rissetto/offense.html

Eh? Eh? That Mark Twain! He could turn a phrase.

Jean said...

Jenny! You have MADE MY DAY. That Twain bit is pure genius. Everybody make sure to follow that link!

One of Twain's writing rules that Cooper "coldly and persistently violated": Use the right word, not its second cousin. YES!

hopeinbrazil said...

Great post. I loved the "Unreadable book" label. I have a few of those too.

Roof Beam Reader said...

Congratulations! I'm glad you were finally able to finish this one. Sounds like the battle I've been having with Anne Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho. I WILL read it sometime - I started it twice (got about 80-100 pages into it, once) but just really can't connect with it. It's one of the books that inspired Austen to write Northanger Abbey (my favorite), though, and many people love it... so I do want to give it a real go someday.

Anyhoo - Haven't read this one, or any Fenimore Cooper, and haven't really been interested enough to try. I'm glad you managed to, though. This is one I really should read, as an American Literature person.... I guess...

Jean said...

See, I'm not even an American Lit person! I think probably you have to read ONE Cooper title in order to qualify as an American Lit Person. But be sure to take Mark Twain along with you to help.

figandthistle.com said...

I've never read any of the Leatherstocking Tales as my nerd friends say it is needlessly wordy. I'm glad you made it through your unreadable read!