The Light in the Forest | Study Guide

Conrad Richter

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The Light in the Forest | Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

This chapter is told from True Son's perspective.

His first night in the Butler home True Son stays wide awake. He feels suffocated by the bed and the house, and he knows he's surrounded by enemies.

True Son remembers Cuyloga telling the "Peshtank story." All the Indian towns know the story. Conestoga Indians were living peacefully with white people until a group of "white savages" from Peshtank slaughtered them. The Conestoga religion forbids fighting, so the Conestoga didn't resist. The survivors went to the neighboring white town of Lancaster, wrongfully thinking they would be safe.

Growing angrier, True Son realizes that some of the Peshtank men and women will greet him as a family member tomorrow. He moves from the bed to sleep in his bearskin covering on the floor.

The next morning he wears his Indian clothing to breakfast. Aunt Kate insists he wash and dress in the clothing Mrs. Butler gave him. True Son can tell she's serious; though he feels ashamed, he obeys. Gordie shows him how to use the tub.

True Son is determined to hide his real feelings and follow Cuyloga's advice. He goes to the parlor to meet several white people, who introduce themselves as his uncles, aunts, and cousins. They all look alike to him, but he recognizes his cousin Alec, whose clothing he is wearing.

Later, True Son listens to his uncles Wilse and George Owens. He remembers that Uncle Wilse was a leader of the Paxton Boys who murdered the Conestoga. Uncle Wilse insists that True Son has absorbed the immoral lifestyle of Indians, including stealing and lying. He criticizes the Delaware language when he hears Del translating for True Son. True Son defends the language, saying many tribes learn Delaware so they can speak to one another. The Delaware language is rich with many descriptive words, he adds, including multiple words for god.

Uncle Wilse protests—how can an Indian, who kills Christians, talk about God? True Son is angry enough to respond in English. He accuses Uncle Wilse of claiming to be Christian but murdering the Conestoga Indians. Uncle Wilse is appalled that True Son hid the fact he could speak English, a deception he calls an "Indian trick." The Conestoga were also deceivers, Uncle Wilse declares, since they claimed to be Christian. The two continue to argue, with Alec stepping in to defend Uncle Wilse.

Mr. Butler asks True Son to apologize, but True Son refuses. Uncle George Owens explains that the Butler family and the Paxton men are good citizens. They need to defend themselves against Indians, Uncle George Owens adds, because Indians don't face penalties for killing white men. Uncle Wilse warns True Son that none of his Indian friends should come to see him.

True Son replies by telling them the story of David Owens, a white man who married an Indian woman before killing her and their three daughters. "Maybe you are his brother," True Son adds. Uncle Wilse slaps him. Furious, True Son revolves not to speak any more that day.

Analysis

This chapter is critical to the rising action of the book. True Son's conflict with his white family reaches a peak when he meets family members who are openly aggressive toward Indians.

The story of the Paxton Boys' attacks or the "Peshtank story" contradicts the white settlers' idea of Christian moral supremacy. Cuyloga says that the month of the massacre, December, was the month when "white men claim their good, kind Lord and Master was born." This is a reference to the Christian celebration of Christmas, which honors the birth of Jesus, a spiritual leader and savior in the religion. Cuyloga points out the holiday to demonstrate how the settlers' religious beliefs don't improve their behavior.

Though warfare and violence were common on the frontier, the Paxton Boys performed extra acts of cruelty and dominance. Mutilating victims and killing children are signs that the settlers don't recognize the humanity of the Native Americans. Cuyloga doesn't like the white settlers any more than they like him, and he feels they don't have a moral code at all. His story indicates his belief that Indians who trust white people are walking into danger. The Conestoga Indians who fled to Lancaster thought white allies would protect them, but they were wrong.

The Paxton Boys' attacks are an example of vigilante justice, also known as "frontier justice," which influenced the 19th-century history of the United States and its western territories. Vigilante justice indicates actions, often lawless or violent ones, taken outside the scope of the law. The Paxton Boys acted illegally, but they believed they were defending the rights of their community.

True Son is aware of the damage white people can do to him. Though obedience to Aunt Kate goes against his view of gender and family power dynamics, he obliges her to avoid further harm. Gordie's offer to help him bathe and dress is a protective act. He knows True Son doesn't want Aunt Kate to help him.

His extended family is less sympathetic. True Son still sees the Butlers through the lens of racial difference. He can't tell his family members apart—they blur together as a group of white people. They see him the same way, grouping all Indians together into "heathens" and "savages."

Family members disagree over whether or not True Son will ever adapt to white settler culture. His parents believe the biological connection, or physically shared blood, will be enough for True Son to bond with them. However, Uncle Wilse—who has a strong distrust of Indians—believes that blood is loyalty, character, and values. This observation recalls the Chapter 1 image of Cuyloga replacing True Son's white blood with Indian blood.

Uncle Wilse's values reflect the biases of many white settlers around him. His idea of a civilized life is centered around whiteness and Christianity. For instance, he insists that True Son speak English, and he views the boy's resistance to speak the language as an intentional deception. He dismisses the idea that other religions can honor a supreme being. Much like Little Crane in Chapter 4 when he was baffled by the behavior of white people, Uncle Wilse has specific ideas of right and wrong. Uncle George Owens shows he has similar views, using the family's church membership as evidence that they are good, moral people.

It's only when Uncle Wilse defends himself that True Son finds his voice in English. True Son is offended by the brutality of the Paxton Boys' violence. Murdering women and children seems like an attempt to exterminate the tribe, and Uncle Wilse's support of the Paxton Boys indicates his lack of respect for Indian lives.

This chapter also offers a broader perspective on frontier politics in the region. Uncle Wilse and Uncle George Owens reference tensions between Quakers, a religious group that promoted nonviolence, and other settlers in Pennsylvania. The uncles are critical of the colonial government for ignoring ongoing battles over control of the frontier. Uncle George Owens is convinced a strong Quaker presence in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania colony's capital city, provides special treatment to Indians.

True Son's reference to David Owens is based on a real case as well. The white settler, whose father was an Indian trader, married an Indian woman and had three children with her. Owens later murdered his family, claiming to feel unsafe around them. The case highlights the deadly fear white settlers had of Indians, even Indians they knew.

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