When I was little my parents owned a copy of The Last of the Mohicans bound in dull blue leather with a picture of a single Indian walking through the forest on the cover. I don't remember ever trying to read it - if I did, I'm not surprised I gave up. Cooper's language is nearly inpenetrably flowery. Conversely, the story is a rocketing action bonanza filled with scalpings, shoot-outs, pitched battles, a siege, a massacre, and extra doses of sappiness.
It was a lot of fun.
I listened to it on tape, which I highly recommend. Strangely, this classic isn't on 'The List' (see sidebar) although a later book in The Leatherstocking Tales, Deerkiller, is.
The story is fairly simple; two fair maidens, the sisters Cora and Alice, are lost in the woods with their protector, Major Hayward, and the comic relief (singing master David Gamut). Their Indian guide betrays them and leads them into an ambush. Luckily they stumble across Hawkeye (aka Le Longue Carabine, aka Nattie Bumppo) and his stalwart Indian companions, Chingachgook and his son Uncas, who are in the employ of the British and take them under their wing. The party is swiftly attacked by a party of 'Mingos' and the action begins.
It's clear that Cooper is actually trying to tackle some serious issues in this novel, but it's not clear at all that he succeeds. The Indians are either idealized as 'noble savages' or portrayed as just plain bloodthirsty savages, and I had to wince a number of times at his language. Chingachgook and Uncas as proud, honorable men simply can't outweigh the screaming hordes of 'redskins' that scalp and plunder through the pages (even at one point dashing a baby's head against a rock - I mean, come on!).
Race, in the end, is destiny. Hawkeye repeatedly emphasizes that he is white and 'a man without a cross', a phrase I actually had to look up (cross meaning cross of blood). Acts that are not permissable for a white man are excused by his companion's race. Of the two women, Alice, the younger (and the blonde), is loved by Duncan Hayward. Cora, the elder, is 1/4 black (and by far the more interesting character) and there is an implied love interest between her and Uncas that only is fully revealed after both of them are dead.
Uncas dies. His father is the last of the Mohicans. Cooper, writing in 1826, knew that this was the destiny of all the Native American communities on the East Coast to be pushed out by the white settlers. Is this a eulogy for those lost communities? Since the book ends with a funeral (following a battle resulting in 'the destruction of a whole community') it's easy to conclude that. But it's also a justification of that destruction.