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Course Hero, "The Light in the Forest Study Guide," September 27, 2019, accessed December 15, 2019, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Light-in-the-Forest/.

The Light in the Forest | Themes

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Coming of Age

True Son goes through many rites of passage often associated with coming of age. He travels on a journey and returns home a changed person. He also struggles to face his circumstances with greater maturity.

His first unwilling journey from the Lenni Lenape tribe to Fort Pitt becomes a test of how well he can behave like an Indian. Cuyloga tells him to bear his disgrace with dignity. Talking to Half Arrow and Little Crane about Indian culture as they travel, True Son becomes more secure in his Indian identity. He remains proudly Indian even after his friends leave him. His second journey, back from Paxton Township to the forest, is a move from bondage to freedom. With Half Arrow he enjoys independence for the first time in his life and he returns to the tribe after overcoming trials on his own. Cuyloga allows him to accompany the war party and make the final transition from boy to man to warrior.

During his travels he moves from the impulsiveness of adolescence to the strength of adulthood. At first he aspires to destroy his white enemies or die an honorable death, but Cuyloga tells him there is honor in taking the more difficult route of suffering captivity with dignity. In later chapters True Son is more thoughtful and cautious. In Chapter 11 he decides to escape the prison-house of his captivity by holding on to his values and beliefs in his mind. While he's eager to join the war party in Chapter 14, he hesitates when he sees his fellow warriors have scalped white children. His time with the Butlers allowed him to see human beings in people he once thought of as enemies. Coming of age means a new perspective on the world. This perspective eventually leads him to betray his tribe and protect young children like Gordie, a decision that leads to his banishment and need to fend for himself like an adult.

Racial and Cultural Identity

Though True Son has been raised as an Indian, he is biologically white. The narrative examines how his racial and cultural identities collide, especially in a world with strict divisions between Europeans and Native Americans.

True Son feels himself to be "blood of Cuyloga and flesh of his flesh" despite his biological ancestry. In fact, his pride in his Indian family means more to him than physical traits. Throughout the book, he wants to prove his racial identity as an Indian, even showing Del his tanned skin. Whiteness is an undesirable condition that will estrange him from the people he knows. Del feels differently, suggesting that True Son belongs with other white people because he himself is white. Other characters think racial identity should determine a person's behavior and social group. True Son encounters both vicious and patronizing racism from members of the Butler family. In Chapter 8 Bejance—the black basket maker—tells True Son that white people make the rules in majority-white communities—indicating that racial identity gives white settlers power.

True Son's cultural identity includes his sense of self, values, beliefs, and behavior—all of which are Indian. In early chapters he imagines death would be better than accepting a new identity. He also aspires to a courage and martyrdom he sees as uniquely Indian when he considers dying for honor. However, his cultural identity becomes a complex subject when he enters white territory. While Del and the Butlers see him as a captive of the Indians, True Son thinks he's a captive of the white people. He refuses to accept his English name or the spiritual values of his birth family.

Family and Belonging

True Son works to find his place both as an individual and within a social unit. His story explores how people find the group where they belong, how these groups come to define them, and why these groups exclude them. Richter demonstrates what the family unit and the larger community mean to True Son and other characters.

For most of the narrative, the only family True Son accepts is his Indian family. The images he recalls of his Indian home are warm and comforting. The gifts Half Arrow gives him at the end of Chapter 3 are meaningful mementos from his family; the bearskin and moccasins remind him of who he is and where he comes from. Later in the book, he longs to see his identity reflected back to him through an Indian face.

Both True Son's Lenni Lenape father, Cuyloga, and his biological father, Mr. Butler, feel a similar connection to him. When the tribe wants to condemn True Son to death in Chapter 15, Cuyloga announces they'll have to kill him, too. True Son recognizes this as a sacrificial act, since the tribe may punish Cuyloga for letting him go free. Mr. Butler longs for this kind of bond with his son in Chapter 10, but he wants True Son to forsake his Indian roots first. Ultimately, True Son can't remain perfectly loyal to either father figure, and he loses both families as a result.

Finding community is a slightly different process. True Son views plants, animals, and other members of the Lenni Lenape tribe as his extended family. Nature provides food and comfort, and tribe members provide support. Communities also share morals and standards for behavior. The Butlers and their fellow townspeople value church attendance, belief in Christianity, and personal property. The Lenni Lenape tribe values respectful communication, the sharing of resources, and group loyalty. True Son fails to conform to community standards in both groups. He's reluctant to participate in social rituals with his white family. When he betrays his tribe by announcing the ambush to the white boat passengers in Chapter 14, his penalty is permanent exile.

Frontier Conflict and Violence

In the 1700s the territory that later became the state of Ohio was considered the American frontier, or the outermost limit of settled land. Because white settlers were displacing Native Americans, the frontier became a hotbed of conflict. The narrative takes place the year after the French and Indian War of 1756 through 1763—a seven-year conflict between French and British troops for control of North America. The effects of the war still resonate with all the characters. Richter examines the effect of European occupation on Indians and the ongoing struggle for land and power on the frontier.

White European settlers cleared Native American land for buildings—chopping down forests and threatening tribal survival. The Lenni Lenape and other tribes feared greater losses. True Son's return to his biological family is the result of a diplomatic agreement between tribal chiefs and Swiss military leader Colonel Bouquet. If the captives aren't returned, Bouquet and his troops will destroy even more tribal land. Though white settlers made treaties giving Native Americans ownership of their territories, these treaties were almost always broken. In Chapter 15 the Lenni Lenape warriors refer to the "crooked stripes of the whites' talking papers"—describing the treaties as "crooked" or lies in writing. Half Arrow steals a trader's canoe to cross a river, convinced that white people have stolen enough from Indians that he can steal from them.

The Indians fought back, and the conflict became ferocious. In Chapter 2 Del mentions that many of his fellow soldiers volunteered to go into Indian territory. They were hoping to avenge the deaths of family members during the French and Indian War. White people use firearms and the threat of firearms to maintain control. One vicious, unprovoked attack—the Paxton Boys' murder of 20 Conestoga Indians—reverberates throughout the local tribes. Scalps become war prizes for both sides. Left with few resources, Indians use complex survival tactics, including humor and trickery. Little Crane tells a white audience two stories about Indians tricking white people out of their land and cattle. To Little Crane the stories are funny tales of triumph, but the white listeners take them as insults and signs of aggression. The overall impression Richter creates is one of the senselessness of violence and the cycle of retribution.

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