I could only think of one childhood book that I remembered and while I recall it fondly, almost sentimentally, there isn’t much to write about it and, as it is a collector’s edition now, donation is impractical. The book, passed on by my cousin, was Kiki Dances by Charlotte Steiner.
Instead, for the Spread the Love Children’s Book Challenge sponsored by Jazzie and Obscura, I’ve chosen to write about an historical novel I taught to seventh graders (ages 11-12), The Light in the Forest, by Conrad Richter (1953).
The Light in the Forest takes place in 18th century Ohio and Pennsylvania, and is based on a 1764 event in history when an American colonel ( also a character in the book, Colonel Bouquet) marched into Ohio with 1,500 soldiers and ordered that the Indians return the white prisoners they had captured.
True Son, (John Butler) a 15 year old boy was taken at the age of 4 from his parents who live in the town of Paxton near the Susquehanna River. He became the “original son” of Cuyloga, the chief of the Lenape tribe and was in all ways except birth, a Lenape. To his horror and the extraordinary sadness of his adopted tribe, he was returned to his American family.
The first part of the book, told mostly from True Son’s point of view, tells of True Son’s/Johnny’s struggles as he is forced to give up his revered Lenape ways in favor of those of the settlers. First his clothes, then his language, then his very identity. Held almost prisoner by his natural family, one bright spot in his life is his younger brother Gordie, who, as an innocent, has no innate hatred of Indians. The other is the hope that his father will come and take him back to the life he loves.
In True Son’s small circle, are some villains including his Uncle Wilse, one of the Paxton Boys who were responsible for a massacre in 1763 of Conestoga Indians who sought sanctuary after fighting between the Pontiacs and settlers who were moving into the Ohio Valley. The Paxton Boys killed them all, including children, all of whom were mutilated.
After a few months, when spring comes again, True Son’s Lenape cousin, Half Arrow and a friend, Little Crane, come to find him for a visit. Little Crane is on his way to visit his former wife, who was also forcibly returned to her White family. Little Crane is murdered and scalped by True Son’s uncle. True Son tries to find answers from his uncle, who becomes violent with him. First in self defense, then in retribution, True Son and his cousin, Half Arrow, attack the uncle and try to scalp him. Caught in the act, they are forced to flee and make their way back to the Lenape tribe.
Here, the book gets a little slow, which I think is what accounts for some of the criticism that it’s boring. In writing about the young mens’ journey, the author goes on just a little too long describing the beauties of the forest, survival in the wild, and the Indian’s reverence for nature. On the other hand, if like me and many of my students who read this book, you love this stuff, then the reading experience suffers little from this interlude. Moreover, it serves a structural purpose as the journey tends to cleanse True Son of the stifling, European lifestyle of the Pennsylvanians. ( I’m trying to be careful here with how I label the players – the book uses Indians and White People, savages and civilized, with abandon).
When True Son and Half Arrow return to the Lenape Village, a plan is hatched to set up an ambush for their white enemies in retribution for Little Crane’s murder. The plan requires True Son to don the clothes of a white youth and lure the the victims (random white settlers) into a trap. In furthering the plan, True Son sees the scalp of a young child and learns that Little Crane’s brother, Thitpin, had scalped a small child. Earlier, True Son had vehemently denied to his family’s pastor that his people, the Lenape, ever scalped or murdered children. Now, he learned that he was wrong. Thitpin explains that he had taken a little girl, but she slowed them up in their escape from the raid, and it was expeditious to kill her. In sum, the necessities of the enmity between the races trumped the life of an innocent child. For the first time, True Son begins to see that his beloved Lenape are not without their own savagery.
On the night before the raid, True Son has a troubled dream that his parents and Gordie are on the boat that he is about to help ambush.
Finally the plan was set in motion. True Son called across the river to the travelers, who are suspicious, and begs them to help him escape from the Lenape who were holding him captive. But then he notices on the boat, a young boy who he thinks could be Gordie In a moment of truth – True Son warns the settlers of the trap and it all falls apart,
True Son is exiled from the tribe. His Lenape father takes him to ” the white road” and sends him on his way – reminding him that now they are enemies and if they meet on the battlefield they must try and kill each other. ” I am not your father,” Cuyloga tells True Son.
“Then who is my father?” True Son answers in anguish. He crosses the river, feeling that he belongs no place, and the book ends.
The Light in the Forest is historically accurate in many ways, something I think appeals to young readers. On a global level, it explores the questions and conflicts of two races who have had a hostile and tragic history. The book exalts the Native American culture while purporting not to understand our culture – the Western need for ownership of material things, and their apparent disdain for the natural world. The author’s intention, as stated in his afterward, was to shed some light on the hostility the Native Americans, and later the African Americans harbor against the majority.
It is also the story of identity, alienation of youth and loss of innocence.
I think for a 10 or 11 year old, the language of the book is easy to read, but the themes may warrant some discussion. I can tell you that in my classes we had great discussions about the book -starting with the question, left up to the reader’s imagination, ” where did True Son/John Butler go after he crossed the river and left his adopted father Cuyloga?”
My niece, after reading this book with her son, assured me that she didn’t find it so politically incorrect as to wish I hadn’t sent it. So, I’m now sending a copy to my other niece for her son.