The Light in the Forest focuses on the relationship between the Scotch-Irish settlers of western Pennsylvania and the Lenni Lenape Native Americans of the Delaware area. The story is set in 1765, against the stormy early period of Pennsylvania history when white settlers paid bounties for Native American scalps, and Native Americans captured and scalped whites. Colonel Bouquet's historic march into Native American territory along the Muskingum River in Ohio and western Pennsylvania forms the focal point of the story. Bouquet pressures the Lenni Lenape and Shawanose to sign a treaty to return all captive whites. Although the Native Americans hate to give up their adopted white relatives, they are afraid to lose their land and see it replaced by a white settlement on the banks of their sacred river. Impressed by the numerous stories of white captives who tried to return to their Native American families and culture, Richter wrote The Light in the Forest to present the Native American point of view.
The early and later parts of the novel are set in the Tuscarawa village at the forks of the Muskingum, where True Son, born John Cameron Butler, has been raised as a Native American. He hates the whites for stealing Native American territory and devastating their land and culture. The experiences of True Son, who is unable to adjust to the restrictions of white civilization, epitomize the enmity between the settlers and the Native Americans. Paxton...
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The Light in the Forest blends historical facts, an understanding of pioneer attitudes, and a Native American viewpoint in a simple but captivating story about a young boy confronting the ambiguous nature of good and evil. In order to avoid polarizing Native Americans and settlers in a good versus evil structure, most events, characters, and locales are described from both points of view. The omniscient narrator alternates the perspectives of the Lenape and the whites, balancing each account by one group with a similar one from the other group. If the Paxton boys are racist and have killed numerous Native Americans, so have the Native Americans scalped whites and even used a child's head as a football. If Little Crane, who comes in peace, is shot from behind, Half Arrow and True Son also start to scalp Uncle Wilse in revenge. The behavior of the two groups toward each other is predictable because each has experienced only one side of the other— enmity and hatred.
His name in Delaware, his father said, was True Son, but never had Del seen anybody so unwilling to go back to his true father and mother. Richter also describes the same situation from two diametrically opposite viewpoints. For example, True Son's sorrow at the loss of his Native American family and his sense of injustice at the white man's encroachment into Lenape territory contrasts with Mrs. Butler's continual mourning for her lost son. Similarly, the Native Americans feel that the...
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In an attempt to present Native American history and culture in an unbiased fashion, Richter inevitably contradicts the glorious myth of the early settlers. While Richter admires the pioneers' fortitude, as is clear from his frontier novels, The Light in the Forest shatters the settlers' moral stance by pointing to the irony in their seeking political, religious, and social freedom for themselves, while invading Native American territory, breaking treaties, and cheating the Native Americans. They subjugate the Native Americans for economic gain, thereby destroying the Native American way of life. Furthermore, the novel questions the ethnocentrism of Western civilization and decries the racial injustice that prevails even in contemporary society.
As a novel that authentically recreates the American past, The Light in the Forest makes numerous references to war, scalpings, and killings that may be offensive to adults and disturbing to children. Most of these events are not graphically described but are reported as having taken place in the past; the readers' emotions are not directly engaged in these events. Two instances, however, could create confusion and raise ethical questions about the heroic aspects of war and the cruelty it entails. True Son and Half Arrow, both sympathetic characters, very naturally and without moral qualms start to scalp Uncle Wilse for the murder of Little Crane, and Half Arrow takes great pride in collecting the...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Cuyloga expresses his final estimation of True Son with the words, "Your heart is Indian. Your head is Indian. But your blood is still thin like the whites." Do you think that lack of courage, symbolized by "thin blood," is an accurate summary of True Son's character after his betrayal?
2. Richter's purpose in writing The Light in the Forest was to show that the white settlers' "ideals and restrained manner of existence repelled the Indian." In what ways are the reactions of True Son and Bejance toward white civilization similar? Are their reactions justified?
3. As a historical novel, what information on the early history of America does The Light in the Forest provide? Do you have a better understanding of Native Americans and the loss of their political rights after reading the novel?
4. Is True Son's attempt to scalp Uncle Wilse in keeping with his character and upbringing? How else could he have reacted to the situation of Little Crane's murder and Uncle Wilse's attack on him?
5. Although True Son's life has been spared by the tribal council, he has been banished from the forest forever. Why does he consider banishment worse than death? Where do you think he will go? Is this open-ended plot satisfactory, or should the author have resolved True Son's ultimate fate?
6. With the possible exceptions of Uncle Wilse and Thitpan, the characters in The Light in the Forest are both good...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. True Son's problem is mainly one of identity. Born white and raised as a Native American, he is confused after his short stay with his white family. In what ways does this make him the enemy of both groups at the end? Is he more Native American or white?
2. Richter attempts through plot, diction, characterization, and setting to give an objective account of the enmity between the settlers and Native Americans. Critics feel that in spite of his conscious efforts to remain objective, the author's sympathy for the Native Americans is apparent. Do you agree? If so, in what ways, subtle or direct, does Richter convey this attitude?
3. Discuss the title The Light in the Forest. What does it mean, and does it accurately reflect the themes of the novel?
4. The Light in the Forest has been described as a moralistic novel that preaches love for humankind by denouncing the behavior of the settlers and by turning True Son into a figure of redemption. Do you agree with this assessment? Is the novel's message offensive to you?
5. Edwin Gaston, a leading scholar of Richter, states that reconciliation with physical and spiritual fathers is a recurring theme in Richter's novels. Analyze True Son's relationships with both Cuyloga and Harry Butler. How is he rejected by both fathers? How does this affect him? Does he make any attempts at reconciliation?
6. The relationship between the Native Americans and the...
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A Country of Strangers, a sequel to The Light in the Forest, was published thirteen years later in 1966. In this novel, Richter's protagonist is Stone Girl, who is being returned to her white family. Reluctant to leave her village and Native American husband, Stone Girl embarks with her son, Otter Boy, on a long, roundabout journey to escape the treaty to return all white captives. At Fort Detroit, her French employer traces her white parents, and she is taken to Pennsylvania against her wishes. She and her son are rejected by her father, Captain Stanton, and subjected to racial prejudice. Stone Girl is wrongly accused of collaborating with the Native Americans to attack the whites, ill-treating her white sister, and stealing. She meets True Son, a recruit of the Twightwee tribe, who helps her to leave the white settlement for the Tuscarawa village. Through Stone Girl's experiences, A Country of Strangers builds sympathy for the plight of the Native Americans, who have to wander as exiles in a land that was once theirs.
The Light in the Forest was made into a motion picture by Walt Disney Productions. It was directed by Herschel Daugherty and released in 1958. In the movie, certain key events and characters have either been changed or eliminated, while others have been fabricated to distort the intention of the author and to make the story covertly racist. The Native Americans, except for Cuyloga, are presented as savages. The...
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For Further Reference
Carpenter, Frederic I. "Conrad Richter's Pioneers: Reality and Myth." College English 12 (November 1950): 77-83. After presenting a brief biography and summarizing Richter's early literary career, Carpenter provides an indepth review of the Ohio Trilogy. The article praises Richter as a simple realist who pays special attention to artistry and authentic language.
Edwards, Clifford D. Conrad Richter's Ohio Trilogy: Its Ideas, Themes, and Relationship to Literary Tradition. The Hague: Mouton, 1970. Edwards presents Richter as a serious thinker whose rejection of his father's faith and church gave direction to his philosophical theories. The book examines Richter's fiction, especially the Ohio Trilogy, from the perspective of these theories.
Flanagan, John T. "Folklore in the Novels of Conrad Richter." Midwest Folklore 2 (Spring 1952): 5-14. Discusses Richter's indebtedness to folklore and the frontier life in the Ohio Trilogy.
Gaston, Edwin W., Jr. Conrad Richter. New York: Twayne, 1965. A thorough study of the relationship between Richter's life and the themes he develops in his fiction and his philosophical essays.
Hutchens, John K. "Conrad Richter." New York Herald Tribune Book Review 26 (April 30, 1950): 3. Briefly traces Richter's literary career to his love for the wild West and his interest in the past.
Kohler, Dayton. "Conrad Richter: Early Americana." College...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Barnes, Robert J. Conrad Richter. Austin, Tex.: Steck-Vaughn, 1968.
Carpenter, Frederic I. “Conrad Richter’s Pioneers: Reality and Myth.” College English 12 (1950): 77-84.
Cowan, William. “Delaware Vocabulary in the Works of Conrad Richter.” In Papers of the Twenty-ninth Algonquian Conference, edited by David H. Pentland. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1998.
Edwards, Clifford D. Conrad Richter’s Ohio Trilogy. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1970.
Flanagan, John T. “Conrad Richter: Romancer of the Southwest.” Southwest Review 43 (1958): 189-196.
Gaston, Edwin W., Jr. Conrad Richter. Rev. ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.
Johnson, David R. Conrad Richter: A Writer’s Life. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.
Kohler, Dayton. “Conrad Richter’s Early Americana.” College English 7 (1947): 221-228.
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