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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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.
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 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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Light in the Forest!