In The Light in the Forest, Richter presents the Indians’ point of view toward the settlement of the wilderness, putting an unusual twist on the traditional captivity tale: He tells the story of a white boy who resents being returned to his natural parents. John Butler was only four years old when Delaware Indians captured him during a raid on his father’s farm in western Pennsylvania. Adopted by a tribal chief and renamed True Son, he lived for more than a decade in the Ohio wilderness until Colonel Bouquet’s treaty with the Delaware Indians called for the repatriation of all white captives. On True Son’s reluctant journey to the Paxton settlement, he sees an ancient sycamore that symbolizes his predicament. A dead limb points toward the white settlement, while a live branch points back toward his beloved Indian culture. The conflict in the story turns on these two claims to his loyalty.
Stubbornly insisting on his Indian identity, True Son refuses all efforts to reinstate him into the life of family and community. His invalid mother seems ineffectual, and his father preoccupied with business ledgers and property. Only his little brother, Gordon, provides comfort and companionship. True Son reserves his greatest hostility for his uncle, Wilse Owens, an Indian-hater and one of the Paxton Boys, who had massacred Indian women and children in an earlier reprisal against the Conestoga.
True Son’s smoldering resentment at his “captivity” in the white settlement reaches a crisis when Half Arrow, his adopted Indian cousin, visits one night to show True Son the body of Little Crane, slain when he tried to visit his repatriated white wife. True Son confronts his uncle, accusing him of the murder. In the ensuing struggle, Half Arrow wounds Owens, and the two boys flee after failing to get Owens’s scalp as a trophy.
True Son’s reunion with his Indian family is joyful but short-lived. Joining Cuyloga, his Indian father, and a group of braves in a war party to avenge Little Crane’s death, True Son is appalled to see one of the warriors massacre and scalp little children. The warriors compel him to serve as a decoy to lure white settlers into an ambush and thereby prove his loyalty, but he cannot repudiate his blood ties to white people, and he warns the intended victims. This betrayal causes Cuyloga to reject his adopted son, declaring him an enemy and banishing him from the tribe. Adrift between two cultures, True Son cries in despair, “Then who is my father?”
The details, anecdotes, and incidents Richter derived from his historical sources enabled him to provide an authentic sensation of life on the Pennsylvania-Ohio frontier without the distortions of sensationalism or sentimentality. Although objective in his portrayal of both the Delaware Indians and the white settlers, Richter carefully controls the narrative point of view, rendering most of the experience through True Son’s consciousness. This allows Richter to convey the poetic imagery and idioms of Indian thought and language as True Son expresses delight in the wild, joyous freedom of the natural world and disgust at the white people’s thoughtless destruction of the forest; their building of fences, walls, and roofs to shut out nature; and their relentless accumulation of material wealth. One of Richter’s aims in writing the novel was “to point out that in the pride of our American liberties, we’re apt to forget that already we’ve lost a good many to civilization.”
True Son’s predicament objectifies the theme of the organic unity of humans and nature inevitably giving way to the restrictions of civilization in the historical process of...
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westering. It also dramatizes the archetypal experience of youth who must give up an idyllic and secure child’s world and take on the responsibilities of adulthood, with its painful moral choices. His discovery that hateful racial prejudice exists in both Indian and white culture and his costly moral choice at the climax of the story reflect his spiritual maturation and intuitive understanding of the need for brotherhood. The novel’s conclusion is a concession to harsh reality: True Son must accommodate his alienation and work out his own identity without the guidance of an earthly father or the comfort of a sustaining cultural community.