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The Light in the Forest

Conrad Richter

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

True Son

The protagonist of the story, True Son, or John Cameron Butler, is a fifteen-year-old white boy who has been raised by a tribe of Delaware Indians for the past eleven years of his life. In the beginning of the novel, True Son is forced to return to the white family from which he was kidnapped. However, the boy considers himself to be a full-blooded Indian and is horrified by the prospect of living with the "evil" whites. True Son loves his Indian family and especially idolizes his father, Cuyloga; throughout the novel he tries to follow Cuyloga's example of strength, patience, and stoicism. But as a rebellious and passionate teenager who has not yet completely grown up, True Son often finds his attempts complicated by rash decisions. Like his Uncle Wilse, True Son is very opinionated and stubborn, and he will act out violently if provoked. Once he is back at Paxton township for the first time in years, True Son vehemently rejects the restrictive white civilization and its people; the only family member he develops a compassionate relationship with is his innocent younger brother Gordie. As Del Hardy points out, True Son's name is ironic since he completely refuses to accept his true white family. However, as time goes on True Son becomes more accustomed to the ways of white people. The loyalty he feels toward his brother Gordie eventually leads him to betray his Indian brothers, leaving him stranded without a father or identity.

Del Hardy

A strong and capable frontiersman, the twenty-year-old Del Hardy provides a contrasting white viewpoint on True Son's story for the first few chapters of the novel. As one of the white soldiers who returns True Son and the other white prisoners to Paxton township, Del strongly believes in the superiority of white civilization and admires his military leader, Colonel Bouquet. As opposed to True Son, Del expresses joy at seeing the signs of white industry and stability; he refers to Indians as savages and cannot seem to totally "figure them out." However, Del is much more knowledgeable about Indian culture than the other soldiers since he grew up near Indians as a boy and knows their customs. At first he cannot believe that the Indians will return their captives to the whites; he knows that the whites are considered members of the Indians' families. Because he understands the Delaware language, Del is assigned as True Son's guard and translator. True Son speculates that the soldier's name is Del because he can speak Delaware. Del views True Son as ungrateful of and rude to his white family, but because he understands much of Indian culture, he is in some ways sympathetic toward True Son's feelings for his Indian ways. When Del finally leaves True Son's family to return to his troop, True Son misses him because he is the last person with which True Son can speak Lenni Lenape (Delaware).


Eleven years ago, Cuyloga adopted True Son in order to replace a child he had lost to "yellow vomit." True Son even states that his Indian father performed a ceremony in which he removed True Son's white blood and replaced it with brave Indian blood. As True Son's Indian father and idol, Cuyloga represents the ideal image of the noble Indian warrior. He is a firm believer in the principles of loyalty, courage, and stoicism. Although Cuyloga loves his son very much and does not want to give him back to the whites, he accepts that this is True Son's fate and, without showing any signs of emotion, forces True Son to leave with the white soldiers. Cuyloga is also portrayed as a very wise figure who always gives True Son sound advice; he is the very opposite of the uncivilized savage that True Son's white family believes him to be. Of particular note is the last message Cuyloga passes to True Son through Half Arrow: Cuyloga reminds True Son of the time he shot a bear who subsequently cried like a coward—the man strongly believes that one must be courageous in both triumph and defeat. Cuyloga later proves his bravery and loyalty to True Son by risking his life to rescue True Son from being killed for his betrayal of the Indians. However, although Cuyloga's actions save True Son's life, we get the sense that he is not as perfect as True Son would have us believe. Cuyloga cannot fully protect his son from the war between the whites and Indians, and in a way he is to blame for True Son's tragic life; had Cuyloga not kidnapped True Son or had he refused to give him up in the first place, he would have kept the boy from being stranded without a father or identity.

Uncle Wilse

A radical white supremacist and leader of the infamous Paxton Boys, True Son's large-set and powerful Uncle Wilse believes strongly in the extermination of the Indian race. His aggressive intolerance represents the racist attitudes of many white settlers of the eighteenth century. Like his nephew True Son, Wilse is stubborn, passionate about his feelings, and willing to use violence against those he perceives as enemies. For example, in a heated conversation with True Son, Wilse strikes his nephew for making an offensive comment. Although he claims to be a good Christian, Wilse feels completely justified in killing the Conestoga Indian women and children in order to prevent them from breeding more "murderers." Wilse and his brother also express resentment at what they perceive to be preferential treatment for Indians. They feel that they must take the law into their own hands because the courts in Eastern Pennsylvania sympathize with Indians and do not punish them for the violence they commit against whites. Toward the end of the novel, Wilse and his cronies shoot and scalp True Son's friend Little Crane because Little Crane and Half Arrow tell stories that Wilse deems offensive. True Son and Half Arrow later punish Wilse for this by tomahawking and partially scalping Wilse as he lies groaning on the floor. We do not know if Uncle Wilse survives this attack, but we learn that even if he does survive he will have life-long scars.

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