The Light in the Forest | Study Guide

Conrad Richter

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The Light in the Forest | Chapter 9 | Summary

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Summary

This chapter is told from an omniscient third-person perspective.

As the March sparrows sing in the orchard, Mrs. Butler lies in her bedroom reflecting on the July day when her four-year-old little boy was kidnapped. Indians ambushed a group of harvesters and took young Johnny—now called True Son—captive. Since then Mrs. Butler has remained an invalid in her room.

She and Aunt Kate are visited by Parson Elder, an old man respected in the town. Aunt Kate tells Parson Elder how difficult True Son has made life for the Butlers. When Kate accuses True Son of stealing, Mrs. Butler protests she can't know if he steals for sure. But Kate insists that True Son will never accept the Butlers as his family.

Parson Elder offers to talk to True Son. When True Son joins the family in the parlor, he sits on the floor and refuses the drinks Aunt Kate offers. Parson Elder gently encourages True Son to be charitable. White people get Indians drunk to steal from them, True Son retorts. Continuing to reason with him, Parson Elder says that True Son should accept Christian beliefs because they are good for his soul.

True Son says his Indian parents taught him his values. He points out Parson Elder was the leader of the Peshtank men who massacred Conestoga Indians. With regret Parson Elder says that even Christian white people are capable of cruelty. Parson Elder also claims he wanted the Peshtank men to retreat. But Indians have killed white children in the past, Parson Elder continues—both sides are guilty of evil. True Son angrily says that Indians never kill children.

Parson Elder talks to True Son for a while longer. As he departs, he tells Aunt Kate and Mrs. Butler that True Son's response is normal after living with the Indians for 11 years. Encouraging the women to be patient, he says True Son will soon adopt their lifestyle.

Analysis

The story explores the trauma of True Son's kidnapping and return from multiple perspectives. The opening of Chapter 9 shows Mrs. Butler's grief, loss, and regret. Like True Son, Mrs. Butler longs for her true family. She wants True Son to reintegrate into white society as Johnny, the child she lost, and she's committed to believing the best about him.

However, the Butlers live with the ongoing effects of frontier conflict and violence, and their family will never be the same. Mrs. Butler's reflection on the "Indian wars" is a reference to the French and Indian War of 1754–63. This chapter investigates the Indian response to white colonial aggression and the consequences for both sides.

The character of Parson Elder is based on the real pastor John Elder, a church and community leader in Paxton, Pennsylvania. Concerned about increased Native American raids in the town, Elder formed a defense group called the Paxton Boys. There is evidence he tried to stop the group in 1763 when its members murdered 20 Conestoga Indians because of a rumor the tribe was planning violence. But Elder later defended the men, claiming they were acting in the best interests of the town.

The story indicates that Parson Elder was responsible for returning the captives to their families. He is the most sympathetic white settler True Son encounters. Speaking to True Son as an adult, he asks him to make sacrifices for the good of the family and community. He admits that white people have committed crimes with lasting impact. Moreover, he admires True Son's quiet authority, even if he finds it unsettling.

However, True Son's perspective is shaped by the effects of colonial injustice. While alcohol is a social drink in the Butler household, it was used by white traders as a bargaining tactic against Indians. Alcohol was a subtle, profitable way to gain someone's favor. White traders often manipulated Indians in just the way True Son describes—getting them drunk in order to cheat them. Swearing, similarly, is a behavior Indians adopted from white people only to have white people demonize them for the same practice.

Parson Elder believes that violence, even lethal violence, against Indians is justified for self-defense. The conversation between Parson Elder and True Son shows the trials of frontier life and the tragedies of ongoing conflict. True Son's journey to adulthood involves a loss of innocence as he sees the conflict in a different light. At first he believes Cuyloga and other Indians always fight fairly. Now, however, he sees that Indians may take drastic measures for vengeance and defense, just as white people might. Parson Elder's reference to Indians scalping white children will recur in a later chapter.

When Parson Elder talks privately to Aunt Kate and Mrs. Butler, he reveals some racial prejudices of his own. He's surprised to learn that True Son has learned values and morals from his tribe. He believes that the only ethical life is the white Christian one, and he's convinced that True Son will eventually agree with him.

The changes in True Son's behavior indicate he is using survival tactics to adapt in a new environment. Chapter 11 describes True Son's own recognition of these changes.

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