The Light in the Forest
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|Genre||Coming of age|
|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
The Light in the Forest is a novel first published in 1953 by U.S. author Conrad Richter. Though it is a work of fiction and primarily features fictional characters, the novel incorporates several real people with facts from U.S. history.
The Light in the Forest is about the struggles of a White boy, John Butler, taken as a boy from his parents in Pennsylvania by the Lenni Lenape Indians.
The story opens in the autumn of 1764. John Butler, approximately fifteen years of age, has lived with the Lenni Lenape in Ohio since being taken prisoner eleven years earlier. His adoptive Lenape father, Cuyloga, renamed him True Son, and he is accepted as a full-blooded Lenape by that community. Along with other Native groups the Lenape have entered into a peace treaty with the British forces. A provision of this treaty is that all of the Indians’ White captives must be returned. This devastates True Son, who considers himself fully Indian and disdains White society. He even considers suicide in order to be free of the Whites, but is unsuccessful. Accompanied by a young soldier, Del Hardy, True Son is taken to Fort Pitt, where he is met by Harry Butler, his blood father. Hardy accompanies the Butlers to their home in Paxton Township, near present-day Harrisburg.
After returning home True Son refuses to recognize his blood father, continues to wear his Indian clothes, and pretends to not understand English. However, his younger brother, Gordie, is intrigued by his Indian ways and becomes the one White person that True Son does not hate.
Later, True Son gets into a heated argument with his Uncle Wilse. Wilse accuses the Indians of scalping children, which True Son denies. Wilse is so angered by what he perceives as the young man’s lack of respect that he slaps True Son.
That spring True Son develops an unidentified illness. His physical sickness is compounded by disappointment that none of his Lenape family have tried to communicate with him since he returned to the Butlers. He is heartened upon hearing that two Indians were asking about him at Wilse’s shop. That evening he slips out of the Butlers’ house and discovers his Lenape cousin, Half Arrow, nearby. Their reunion is tempered by finding that men from Wilse’s shop shot and scalped their friend, Little Crane. The boys confront Wilse, knocking him to the ground and scalping him. They escape back into the wilderness and head west to return to their people. They find the Lenape angry over the murder of Little Crane, and eventually the tribe declares war on the Whites. They attack some small villages and scalp the settlers living there. True Son finds some children's scalps among the rest and is disturbed by the fact that the Indians fought against children as well as adults.
True Son is used as bait to lure a band of settlers into an ambush, but intentionally gives away the plan when he sees a child among them who reminds him of Gordie. This act enrages many of the Lenape, who prepare to burn True Son at the stake, but Cuyloga convinces the others to banish him instead. Cuyloga tells True Son that he is no longer Indian, that he would be received as a White enemy if ever seen again in Indian territory and that he (Cuyloga) is no longer True Son’s father. Cuyloga accompanies True Son to a White road, where they part.
True Son (John Cameron Butler) is the story's protagonist. He was kidnapped by the Lenape from his home Fort. True Son endured 11 years of lessons of strength and patience, with fire and freezing water tactics, until he was fifteen. At that age, he was forced to go back to his real white family.
Cuyloga is True Son’s adoptive Indian father and firmly believed that he had transformed True Son into an Indian. Cuyloga is described as the wisest and the strongest father. He is the one who took True Son away from his white family.
Del Hardy is a young soldier charged with ensuring True Son’s return to his adopted family’s home. He is also a translator who speaks Lenape. Like True Son, Del spent part of his youth living among the Lenape. While he is distrustful of Indians as a group he is empathetic toward True Son and allows his Indian companions to accompany him on part of the journey to his white family
Half Arrow is True Son's favorite Indian cousin. He accompanies him to Fort Pitt. He later comes to Paxton in search of True Son and together they return to the Lenape village in Ohio.
Uncle Wilse (Wilson Owens) is True Son's White uncle. A white supremacist, he is well known as a member of the Paxton Boys, a group notorious for having massacred the Susquehannock Indians, also known as Conestoga or Conestogo. True Son hates Wilse for his involvement in the massacre, while Wilse believes that True Son has been brainwashed by the Lenape and cannot be trusted.
While The Light in the Forest is a work of fiction it references several historical persons, places, situations and events. The Tuscarawas River, along which lay True Son’s Lenape village, runs through northeastern Ohio. It meets the Walhonding River to form the Muskingum River near Coshocton. (“The Forks of the Muskingum” are mentioned frequently in the novel.) The Muskingum in turn meets the Ohio River near Marietta, Ohio. Fort Pitt stood at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. A British post, it replaced the French Fort Duquesne in 1758. The ferry that takes True Son, Harry Butler, and Del Hardy across the Susquehanna River is likely Harris’ Ferry, which later gave rise to the city of Harrisburg. Fort Hunter is now operated as a period museum north of the city. In one portion of the novel a Black slave tells True Son and Gordie about Kittatinny, Second, and Stony (or Short) Mountain. These are easily recognizable as Blue, Second and Third Mountains, north of present-day Harrisburg. The narrative provides an accurate description of the craggy crest of the latter.
The Native American place name “Peshtank or Paxton” remains in the names of Dauphin County’s Upper, Middle, and Lower Paxton Townships, as well as in the borough of Paxtang. However, the “Paxton Township” referenced in the novel once included all but the southernmost portion of present-day Dauphin County, as well as part of present-day Lebanon County. When the narrative speaks of “the two townships” the second is almost certainly Derry Township, to the south of Paxton.
John Elder (1706–1792), known as "the Fighting Parson," became the pastor of Paxton Presbyterian Church, located in present-day Paxtang, in 1738. The church was founded in 1732; the present structure, built in 1740, is the oldest Presbyterian church still in use in Pennsylvania and would have been standing at the time of the events portrayed in ‘’The Light in the Forest’’. Elder’s family was from County Antrim, Ireland, and he was a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. John followed his father, Robert, to America in about 1735. The novel mentions Elder as being pastor of the “Derry Church.” While the unincorporated town of Hershey, in Derry Township, was previously known as Derry Church, Elder’s pastorate at the church in Paxtang is unquestioned.
Elder was in fact a leader of the Paxton Boys, a vigilante group formed to protect White settlers from Indian attack. The Paxton Boys are perhaps best known for having massacred a group of Conestoga Indians who had been placed in protective custody in a jail in Lancaster. The massacre was carried out as vengeance for an attack on White settlers by an entirely different group of Indians.
Henry Bouquet (1719–1765) was a prominent British Army officer in the French and Indian War and Pontiac's War. In autumn 1764 he became commander of Fort Pitt. In October of that year his army reached the Tuscarawas, the site of True Son’s fictional village, and representatives of several Native groups came to him to sue for peace. The return of White captives described in ‘’The Light in the Forest’’ was a traumatic experience for many captives, particularly those who had been “adopted” while very young and who remembered no other way of live than with the Native Americans. Many captives managed to return to their Indian families and many others were never exchanged at all. However, Bouquet managed to return approximately 200 former captives to settlements back east. Bouquet died suddenly, shortly after the events depicted in the novel.