The Light in the Forest
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Indian Freedom versus White Civilization
Throughout the novel, Richter clearly differentiates between the natural, free world of the Indians and the restricting, "civilized" domain of the whites. Whereas Indians roam the land free from the burdens of earthly goods, whites are concerned with creating stable settlements in which they can set up industry. As Bejance points out, white people gradually force you to conform to their standards of behavior. True Son eventually discovers that outsiders lose their freedom little by little, and before they know it they are living in a house, sleeping in a bed, and eating with knives and forks. The last paragraph of the novel leaves us with a particularly ugly idea of white society: True Son is forced to leave the "wild, beloved freedom" of the Indian country for the empty and prison-like world of white society.
Furthermore, whites are portrayed as more intolerant and exclusive about who can exist within their "civilized" society, and they have been known to betray Indian converts and enslave blacks. As Bejance and True Son's stories suggest, Indians are willing to include members of any race in their free culture so long as they are loyal. White captives adopted by Indians become loved and fully assimilated members of Indian families, as we see in the case of True Son. The Conestoga Indians, however, are never fully accepted into the white community they embrace. Even though they have done nothing wrong and consider themselves Christians, they are brutally massacred by the Paxton bullies.
The Victimization of Children
Throughout the novel, Richter demonstrates the tragic effects of frontier life on children. We learn through the stories of the Paxton boys and of Thitpan and his cronies that both Indians and whites scalp innocent children despite the children's lack of involvement with the war. As Gordie's naïve and accepting character suggests, frontier children are not born with feelings of hatred toward other races and have the strongest potential for brotherly relationships. However, they become victims of racial violence or are eventually taught how to hate by their elders as is Alec, thus crushing the hope for less racist future societies. True Son's own story also reveals much about the maltreatment of children. Our protagonist has been controlled by the war between the races for much of his life, and yet, after making two serious but understandable mistakes, he is eventually left abandoned by both societies. Neither culture grasps the confusion and pain of the boy that have arisen from the war between the two cultures.
The Struggle for Identity and Allegiances
As a white teenager raised by Indians and then forced to return to his white family, True Son experiences an unsettling search for his true identity. The boy feels allegiance only toward his Indian father, Cuyloga, but he cannot escape the fact that other whites see him as white and that he has a white family who loves him. His relationship with Gordie and the realization that his Indian brothers do indeed kill white children confuses True Son. Although the boy strongly identifies himself as an Indian, his loyalty to Gordie overpowers his allegiance to the Indians long enough for him to ruin their ambush attempt. True Son's brotherly connection with Gordie and his loyalty to the Indians cannot coexist. Having betrayed the Indians and having scalped Uncle Wilse, the boy is ultimately left without a father and hence without an identity.
The Imperfection of Both Indian and White Societies
The idea that both whites and Indians are imperfect is a crucial theme that is explored at length throughout the novel, and it is also a truth that True Son must ultimately face. Although the boy initially perceives the war between whites and Indians to be a clear-cut battle between good and evil, he gradually learns that both sides have committed equally horrific deeds. One of True Son's main grievances with Uncle Wilse is that he and the Paxton boys have brutally killed the innocent Conestoga children and True Son's peaceful friend Little Crane. As True Son suggests, the whites are extremely hypocritical; on one hand they claim to be peaceful Christians who embrace Indian converts, and on the other they feel justified in killing innocent people who have come to them as friends.
However, in Chapter 14, True Son begins to see that the Indian war party's actions and intolerance parallel those of the Paxton Boys. Until True Son sees the girl's scalp, which Thitpan carries, he had believed that no Indians killed white children. Now it appears as if Thitpan is no better than Uncle Wilse. Although True Son accepts the explanation of his friend's brother, he begins to doubt the faultlessness of the Indians. The perpetual violence caused by both sides has simply led to more despair, and Parson Elder, although he clearly has a bias toward white culture, is one of the only characters to understand this.
Richter suggests his bias toward the Indian way of life by including many breathtaking descriptions of the beautiful, untouched environments of Indian country. Nature is always linked to the world of the Indians and in particular to their definition of freedom, and—through the eyes of True Son—parts of nature are even described as family members. Richter writes particularly long and inviting passages about Indian country in Chapters 12 and 13, during True Son and Half Arrow's adventure home. The time the cousins spend together in the wilderness marks their last adventure as children who are still free from the war between whites and Indians. When they are together as brothers enjoying a simple existence in nature, they do not have to think about the past, and they finally have control over their lives. Richter seems to imply that this is the way we are meant to live: free and at peace with our friends and nature.
Point of View and Language
Although the point-of-view of The Light in the Forest always remains in third person omniscient, Richter often portrays the story's events through the eyes of several characters. In order to create this effect, the author concentrates on different characters' personal feelings in separate chapters, in addition to adopting the tone and speech used by these characters. For example, in the fifth and sixth chapters of the novel we are introduced to Fort Pitt and Carlisle from True Son and Del Hardy's viewpoints, respectively. The words used to describe the settlements in Chapter 5 are indicative of True Son's negative attitude toward white civilization—the houses are referred to as prisons and the settlements themselves are called gloomy and ugly. Conversely, the language of Chapter 6 reveals the thoughts of Del Hardy—houses are referred to as welcoming signs of superiority and phrases such as "you'd reckon" are included to get the sense of Del's uneducated speech. This technique is effective in giving us a multi-dimensional perspective on True Son's story and the life of the frontier. Furthermore, in learning the personal feelings of True Son's white parents, as we do in Chapters 9 and 10, we become much more sympathetic to their situation. Richter shows that there is not one correct viewpoint on the war between whites and Indians; many of the characters have complicated but equally understandable perspectives.
Fort Pitt, the farthest west outpost of the white soldiers, represents several different ideas for both Del Hardy and True Son. When True Son first lays eyes upon Fort Pitt in Chapter 5, he feels suffocated by the gloomy, dark structure. He views the establishment as an ugly example of the restrictive white culture. On the other hand, Del Hardy sees Fort Pitt as a comforting and striking example of the superior and powerful products of white civilization. As he returns home in Chapter 12, however, True Son views the image of Fort Pitt as a sign of his triumph over the whites. Fort Pitt is the last sign of white civilization before True Son's beloved in Indian country.
When True Son is presented with English clothes for the first time, he is filled with revulsion. To him, the clothes symbolize the lying, deceitful, and murderous ways of white people; he refuses to put them on since they are the sign of his enemies. Later, when True Son is forced to wear the clothes, he feels imprisoned by them and refers to them as "prisoner's garb." Forcing people to wear English clothes is one of the ways in which the whites gradually make outsiders conform to their culture. The clothes are particularly vile to True Son because they cause other people to identify him as a regular white boy as opposed to the Indian he identifies as himself. When True Son is finally able to slip into his old Indian clothes in Chapter 12, he feels liberated from the bonds of white culture. However, he is later forced to wear English clothes again during the Indians' attempt to ambush the white boat of settlers. After betraying the Indians, True Son begins to take off the wet garments, but he is told to leave them on since they can no longer identify him as an Indian. In the end, the white clothes symbolize True Son's disloyalty and his return to the restricting world of the whites.
When True Son first learns from Bejance about the existence of Corn Blade, he is filled with hope and determination. The Lenni Lenape speaking Indian represents what True Son believes to be his last hope in connecting to his Indian culture while living amongst the whites. For months, the hope of meeting Corn Blade is what keeps True Son's spirit alive; he yearns to converse with the last Lenni Lenape speaking person in the area. When True Son's attempt to reach Corn Blade fails and when he learns that Corn Blade is dead, we see True Son's spirit decline as well. Corn Blade thus comes to symbolize True Son's unattainable dream of freedom.
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