In The Light in the Forest, Conrad Richter tells the story of a boy who is captured and adopted into a Native American family, where he is eventually accepted as a full-blooded member of the Lenape Indian tribe. However, due to a treaty that had been agreed to between the British and the Lenape tribe that states all whites previously held captive must be returned, he is eventually forced to reunite with his biological family. The central theme of the novel is the juxtaposition of the two cultures and their relations with one another.
Originally born John Butler, the boy is taken from his family in Pennsylvania at a young age. The story begins when the boy, now known as True Son, learns of the news that all Lenni Lenape and Shawanose Indians would be forced to relinquish their white prisoners. True Son is already 15 years of age at the time and is in utter disbelief, thinking back as far as he could, having always been a member of the Lenape tribe, as he was adopted 11 years prior to replacing the deceased son of his Indian father Cuyloga, who has passed as a result of yellow fever. Not only did True Son not want to be reunited with his white family, but he, in fact, considered them to be his enemy.
The Lenape culture is portrayed in the novel is as free and, at times, careless. True Son and his sister Half Arrow are described at one point in the novel as spending all day drifting with the current, spending most of their day dozing in the sun while admiring the richness of the Indian forest, despite the fact that they were in potential danger due to their close proximity to white spies. The culture is depicted as carefree and one with the world – a trait that True Son has grown to love throughout the years.
Not only does the culture value living in harmony with nature and their surrounding, True Son and his family also partake in a number of cultural rituals. A few of the rituals mentioned throughout the story include True Son placing a hot stone on his skin until he could no longer bear the pain in the summer while wading in an icy river until his father gave him permission to exit the water during the coldest months of the year. The idea behind the rituals was that physical pain would harden the members of the tribe so they could bear any hardship that was placed upon them.
However, Lenape culture is a stark contrast to that of the whites, who were much more concerned with creating a civilized culture than respecting the land and living a carefree lifestyle. True Son is unimpressed with their ugly log redoubts and pale tents, at first denying he is of any relation to the alien whites. Facing death after being declared a traitor, his Indian father Cuyloga saves him from being burned and sends him back to his biological family, to which True Son acquiesces.
Both cultures feel they live in a culture that is free. True Son’s biological brother, Gordie, declares to a basketmaker that, “You’re not free like us.” This displays a contrast in views, as each has a different definition of the term free. Whereas Indians feel they are free due to the fact that they live in nature and are one with the world, the whites, on the other hand, feel they are free due to the civilized nature of their culture. After reuniting with his biological family, True Son contemplates how the Indians are freer after attending a spiritual session in a building known as the Great Spirit’s lodge.
After attending the session, he comes to the conclusion that there is no possible way the God of the universe would stay in a tiny, stuffy place. Instead, he believes the Indians had the right idea, as God preferred the open woods with birds, streams, and fresh air. During the conversation between Gordie and the Negro basketmaker, the Negro laments about never having the ability to fish in the spring and summer or hunt in the fall and winter. He eventually concedes that he is a slave, but not without claiming the whites are slowly enslaving their children as well by forcing them to sleep in beds. In the end, the conversation proves that both cultures simply had a different definition of the term free due to their cultural differences and personal ideals.
The novel has been touted not only because it is an entertaining story, but also because it provides a realistic description of life at the time. Many have praised Richter for his ability to romanticize the past due to his descriptive prose and compelling plotlines. Whereas other novelists sought to either portray Indians as noble savages or create a fictional tale to arouse the imagination, Richter instead chose to write a novel that provided an authentic representation of life in early America. As a result, the story serves almost as both a historical document and a piece of American literature.
While other novelists have tried to portray the relationship between Native Americans and American colonials as a battle of good vs. evil, Richter instead highlighted how both cultures were imperfect, as both killed innocent victims throughout the story. True Son comes to this realization himself toward the end of the story. Previously he thought only the whites had committed atrocious crimes against the Native Americans but later learns that the Native Americans had also killed an innocent victim, coming to the conclusion that both cultures were partially at fault for the violence.
Ultimately, the author does a tremendous job in The Light in the Forest of providing a vivid description of both cultures and their strained relationship with one another. He thoroughly outlines the value each culture placed on certain societal conventions, such as the Indian belief that one should live with nature, and the whites believed a civilized culture was a representation of freedom. He describes how these differences of opinion led to conflict between the two groups. As a result, he is able to accurately contrast the two cultures and provide readers with an authentic portrayal of the two groups that painted the landscape during the early years of American history.
Kohler, D., ‘Conrad Richter: Early Americana’, College English, vol. 8, no. 5, 1947, p. 222.
Richter, C., The Light in the Forest, New York, Vintage Books, p. 142-143.
Schmaier, M. D. and Richter, C., ‘Ethnohistory’, Duke University Press, vol. 7, no. 4, 1960, p. 330-331.