(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 717 words.)

The Light in the Forest Overview

The Light in the Forest addresses universal issues of survival, individual freedom, divided loyalties, and identity through the...

(The entire section is 227 words.)

The Light in the Forest Chapter Summaries

The Light in the Forest Chapter 1 Summary

True Son is fifteen years old and tries to act like a grown man when he hears the news, but inside he is in great pain. Physical pain he can endure, as he has many times before, like when hot stones were placed on his skin or when he had to sit in an icy river as his Indian father tried to make him strong enough to endure any physical hardship. But nothing has prepared him for this.

It is November, and it has been rumored for days in True Son’s village that the Lenni Lenape and Shawanose are being forced to return their white prisoners; but True Son never thought he would have to leave. Cuyloga has been True Son’s father for eleven years, ever since True Son was adopted as Cuyloga’s son, replacing a son who died. Cuyloga spoke words that replaced the boy’s white blood with Indian blood, and that is when the boy became True Son, a member of Cuyloga’s family. Now he must be torn from them and given to his enemy, “the alien whites.”

The day his father tells him the news, True Son determines he will never give up this life; so he sneaks out of his village, blackens his face with campfire soot, and hides in a hollow tree. True Son thinks no one will find him, but Cuyloga tracks his son down and ties the boy up in his cabin.

The next morning, Cuyloga leads True Son away from everything and everyone he has known for most of his life and leads him to the “ugly log redoubts and pale tents of the white army.” True Son wonders if Cuyloga, who has always been right, is in the right now.

The sights and smells of the white man are loathsome to the boy, and he tries with all his strength to escape this fate. Finally Cuyloga drags True Son, twisting and screaming, to the council house and deposits him in a pile of leaves along with the other captives.

True Son now knows all hope is lost. One of the soldiers, Del Hardy (perhaps nicknamed that because he can speak Delaware, what the white men call the language of the Lenni Lenape), tells Cuyloga that all Indians must leave the army camp by nightfall.

Before Cuyloga leaves, he speaks to True Son in a “low, stern voice” and tells the boy to go like a true Indian without shaming his father. True Son thinks about his beautiful village and weeps with homesickness.

The twenty-year old Hardy sees the boy’s sorrow and laughs at him. Immediately True Son turns away, and hatred rises in him like poison. He vows to steal the guard’s knife and kill him with it.

The Light in the Forest Chapter 2 Summary

Del Hardy left Fort Pitt in October and now serves with Colonel Bouquet, a peaceful but rather crazy man. The Colonel marched his troops as if they were going to a celebration rather than into a hundred miles of wilderness in hostile Indian territory without a fort or settlement anywhere near.

The soldiers are outnumbered two to one, and each day the Indians lie in wait to kill them. Most of Bouquet’s men do not expect to reach their destination alive as their orders are not to harm any Indian unless they are directly attacked. Half of the soldiers are volunteers who have lost loved ones to Indian attacks and are now seeking revenge. Although they despise that order, the soldiers obey it. 

Bouquet and his men finally reach the Forks of the Muskingum, where many Indian tribes are located. Rather than being intimidated, Bouquet grows bolder and demands that every Indian messenger who visits the army camp must deliver one message to their tribes: there will be no peace until all white prisoners have been returned.

Hardy lived with the Delaware Indians when he was a boy, and he tries to explain that any white prisoners who had been kidnapped were either killed immediately or adopted into an Indian family, often in place of a dead relative. This adoption is a serious thing to the Indians; the white prisoners actually become full-blooded Indians and their tribe will never let them go.

But Hardy is wrong. The Indians hate and fear white men, and their presence so near the Indians is enough for them to give up their “white relations.”

It is an awful sight to see the emotional partings between the Indians and their adopted relatives, but Hardy is amazed at how ungrateful the white prisoners are, refusing to have anything to do with the white soldiers who are risking their lives to rescue them. The “wildest and most rebellious” of them all is True Son; he has to be tied up so he will not escape. The boy is wearing a calico hunting shirt and Indian leggings, although he is obviously white. The boy grows wild as he approaches the white camp. The Indians all suffer too as they leave their loved ones forever, but they remain stoic.

That night, Hardy discovers True Son trying to tear at the knots that bind him with his teeth. The guard tries to reason with the boy, reminding him that he had a white mother and father before he had Quaquenga and Cuyloga, but the boy maintains his disdain for all white men and their filthy ways. In the morning, Hardy tries to persuade True Son to eat so he will be strong enough for the trip back to Pennsylvania. True Son vows that he is not leaving but will say nothing more. 

The Light in the Forest Chapter 3 Summary

On the third day after True Son’s arrival, the white man’s army camp begins to stir; tomorrow the two thousand soldiers and the returned white captives will leave for Pennsylvania.

True Son spends the day in despair, knowing he will never be able to live as a slouching, undignified white man. He remembers his Indian father’s friend who, after his squaw and children left him, ended his life by eating the poisonous root of the May apple. No one thought of him as a coward, so no one will think True Son is a coward if he kills himself rather than be carried off to Pennsylvania. This way his body will remain here in the land he loves, and his Indian family will mourn for him and visit his burial site.

Three times that day he falls on the ground and tries to gather some of the poisonous root, but he is tethered like a beast and will now have to wait until they begin the march. Then he will find the root and end his life.

True Son struggles violently as the journey begins, but he is forced to keep moving by his guard, Del Hardy. Suddenly True Son hears someone calling him from the cover of some nearby trees. It is his cousin and friend Half Arrow, who is just ahead of True Son as he marches in the column. Half Arrow vows to march the entire way with True Son, and the two boys chatter tirelessly even though they have only been apart for three days. Little Crane, another Indian from near True Son’s village, also walks with the group to be near his white squaw.

Having a friend with him uplifts True Son’s spirits, and he forgets to search for the poisonous root of the May apple. Finally Half Arrow cautiously emerges from the cover of the woods, and True Son shares his bread and meat with his cousin. Both boys find the meat distasteful, and Half Arrow understands why the white people are so “pale and bandy-legged”—because they have to eat such old and stringy meat.

The boys march all day together, but Hardy will not allow them to sleep next to each other, afraid True Son will try to escape. Half Arrow agrees to sleep in the woods like Little Crane, but first he presents True Son with some gifts, including a small bag of parched corn; a richly embroidered pair of moccasins; and the old, worn bearskin that had been on True Son’s bed in the cabin. All of these gifts will help True Son remember his Indian family, and he is moved by them. Half Arrow sleeps in a bed of leaves. 

The Light in the Forest Chapter 4 Summary

True Son dreads the day when Half Arrow and Little Crane will have to turn back and go home. As they travel, the boys discuss which of the white men’s horses they would steal and which of the white guards they would scalp if they had the opportunity.

They also talk about white people’s foolish ways. Indians are an “original people,” so their eyes, skin, and hair are always dark. Whites are a mixed people and therefore are many different types and colors. This is why they are “so foolish and troublesome.” The Great Being even had to give them the Good Book so they will know right from wrong, something Indians know without reading anything. White men must have poor vision because they always stand so close,...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

The Light in the Forest Chapter 5 Summary

Now True Son is alone and will have to “think his own Indian thoughts.” He does not reveal any of his loathing as he marches into Fort Pitt, despite the darkness of the passageways, the drunken soldiers, and the obsequious turncoat Indians he sees inside the fortress.

Not until he leaves Fort Pitt and crosses a mountain range does True Son feel the full weight of his exile. He feels his white enemies surrounding him, and everything he sees is evidence of the white men’s confining, restricted lives, including fences and houses made of heavy brick and stone.

When the group arrives at its destination, small crowds try to “storm the captives,” but the soldiers protect their prisoners. True Son’s...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

The Light in the Forest Chapter 6 Summary

Del Hardy was thankful to be back at Fort Pitt and away from the savages and the wilderness. After three hundred miles of tramping through forests, he was thankful to see cleared land once again. Everything was familiar, and people rejoiced as the army delivered the white captives.

Now he is on a ferry with the boy, John Cameron Butler, and his father. They are all on horseback for the short crossing. True Son is silent and sullen until he hears his father say they are on the Susquehanna River; then he pours out bitter invective that Hardy wearily translates. Cuyloga, his Indian father, told him the Susquehanna River belongs to the Indians and was stolen from them, along with their ancestors’ graves, by the white...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

The Light in the Forest Chapter 7 Summary

That night, True Son and Hardy sleep in a closed-in bedroom that feels like a grave to the Indian boy. He does not sleep because he is thinking about the story Cuyloga told him about the horrible Peshtank Township. The men came into the Conestogo village and brutally killed everyone in it; the Conestogo, true to their faith (they had adopted the white man’s Christian religion), did not resist. Their cabins were burned and the people were destroyed. When the Conestogo who had been away from the village returned, they sought refuge in the white man’s jail, assuming this would be a safe place. It was not. Just before Christmas, “white barbarians,” all claiming to be Christians, broke open the jail and slaughtered the Indians....

(The entire section is 498 words.)

The Light in the Forest Chapter 8 Summary

True Son takes off the pants and jacket that once belonged to his Uncle Wilse’s son and will not wear them ever again. Butler hires a tailor to make his son an everyday outfit and a dress outfit; although he hates the clothes, True Son hates the heavy, confining shoes even more. He continues to wear his moccasins rather than the ugly, restricting shoes until one night when Aunt Kate takes them while he is sleeping. Now he has to wear his new shoes.

Del Hardy has left and True Son misses him, as he was the last connection to his Indian people. “And now all the odious and joyless life of the white race, its incomprehensible customs and heavy ways, falls on him like a plague.” True Son has to learn to read and write,...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

The Light in the Forest Chapter 9 Summary

In late March, Myra Butler lies in bed and remembers a day in July, eleven years ago. Her husband was helping with the harvest and took young Johnny along. As the harvesters worked, Indians hid in the woods. When the workers were in the middle of the field, far from their weapons, the Indians killed one man and wounded a woman. Everyone ran and the Indians took Johnny, who had been playing under a shade tree. That was when Myra became an invalid.

Now the much loved Parson Elder is here to visit, and he allows Myra to unburden herself about her eldest son. She is thankful the boy did not escape with Gordie, but True Son is ungrateful, eating only when he is hungry and shaming her family in front of relatives and...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

The Light in the Forest Chapter 10 Summary

Harry Butler stands in his son’s bedroom for the first time since True Son came home. He is only there now because the boy is sick. The doctor has been here and bled the boy, but he is certain True Son has simply lived too long among the heathen Indians and has contracted one of their mysterious and primitive diseases. (He knows that the Indians have exactly the same organs, muscles, bones, and blood as white men, but there are “obscure primitive tendencies and susceptibilities in the aboriginal race.”)

All the doctor knows for certain is that the boy has had a strong fever for a week and that none of his tests and medicines has been effective on the sick boy. Eventually the fever will either break or kill him....

(The entire section is 491 words.)

The Light in the Forest Chapter 11 Summary

True Son knew he was getting sick. It had been a long time since he left his Indian family, and he had not heard from them. He remembered his old life with longing, and he convinced himself that he would hear from his family by spring.

Eventually that time passed, and now he realizes he is “dead to his Indian people.” Even worse, True Son senses that his Indian spirit has been tamed by the white man. He has even wielded a hoe, something Cuyloga told him was beneath a man’s dignity. True Son wants only to obey the voice inside him that says he must let himself sink into the darkness and escape the prison cell of his bedroom.

Tonight, however, he is vaguely aware that something unusual has happened. He...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

The Light in the Forest Chapter 12 Summary

True Son wakes up but does not know where he is at first. He was weak and on the edge of death, but now he is strong and free. He wonders if he is dead until he hears Half Arrow snoring next to him. Now True Son remembers what happened last night. When he tells Half Arrow he will be going back to the Indian village with him, Half Arrow whoops loudly and they begin their journey.

Eventually True Son runs out of energy and they have to stop; as they lie in the woods, they hear several search parties crossing the valley. The next morning, True Son is shivering with wet and cold, and he has not eaten for several days; but at the top of the mountain he looks out and knows he has finally escaped from his Peshtank prison. His...

(The entire section is 324 words.)

The Light in the Forest Chapter 13 Summary

After True Son and Half Arrow pass Fort Pitt, they no longer feel as if they must hide during the day. They stop for the night in a lush part of the river bank, and in the morning they make a net to catch fish for a meal. It is such a pleasant place that they spend several months here.

The cousins spend their days hunting and fishing and enjoying all that nature provides them. True Son and Half Arrow are experiencing the life they have dreamed of living. They are their own masters and are able to gather their own provisions from the land in a kind of “primitive deliciousness.”

The cousins cut one another’s ears to “make them seemly,” and they pull out all the hair on one another’s head except for...

(The entire section is 345 words.)

The Light in the Forest Chapter 14 Summary

True Son sleeps with his family in his usual place that night. For several days, the village celebrates the boys’ return.

True Son feels a deep sense of contentment, but there is a shadow hovering over him and the village. Little Crane’s relatives did not come for the homecoming celebration, even though they live quite close, and they do not greet True Son when he passes.

When Little Crane’s brother comes to the village, both boys are uneasy. Thitpan (which means bitter) has other men with him. These men go to the council house and begin beating a drum. Cuyloga’s face indicates this is a serious matter. The visitors are calling for vengeance and war on the white man. Cuyloga agrees to go since Little...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

The Light in the Forest Chapter 15 Summary

Suddenly True Son realizes what he has done: he has betrayed his brothers. No one welcomes him, and even Half Arrow turns away. True Son cannot make them understand what he did because he does not understand it himself.

After some deliberation, True Son’s hands and feet are bound and one half of his face is painted black with charcoal while the other half is painted white with clay from the river bank. This means the council is divided and he will therefore be tried in the Lenape fashion. True Son will either be burned alive (the black side) or be allowed to live (the white side).

Thitpan argues that True Son chose white people over Indians, so there is no Indian blood in his veins. Each man throws a stick...

(The entire section is 504 words.)