Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter

John Butler is taken from his family at age four in an Indian raid against English settlers during the French and Indian War. This was when the French and British were fighting over the rights to colonize in North America, and the Indians got involved helping the French. John’s family lived in what is today Ohio. Much of the Indian land had been lost to the whites by that time, so that there was no love lost between the colonists and the Indians. Two years after the British won the war, there was an exchange of prisoners, in 1765. Because so much time had passed, many of the younger captives had been raised as Indians, and they did not always want to return to their first families. In Richter’s novel, John Butler is one of these, having to leave the Indians when he is 15 years old.

The book was published in 1957, at a time when the United States was emerging as a dominant world culture and was engaged in building commercial empires. Some of the people living in developing countries feared the impact of the United States culture on their own traditions.

Richter had sympathy with native peoples, here and abroad, and distrusted the development and expansion of modern cities and suburbs. Having spent his early childhood in a rural Pennsylvania setting, he mourned the passing of what he saw as the pastoral Indian way of life, the “light” in the forest.

The story is simply told, from the young man’s point of view. True Son (John Butler’s Indian name) not only hates the white men for what they have done to his people, but feels imprisoned and suffocated in their culture. All the white adults in the story know nothing about the Indian culture, simply classifying them as primitive and murderous. There is no wiser person present to offer some mediating point of view, which is to be regretted. A minister does try to explain to True Son the horrors that Indians had committed against some colonists, but True Son cannot believe it, since in his village no one ever boasted of killing women or children.

Richter has been criticized for idealizing the Indian culture as reverent and spiritual in all its ways, and showing the colonists’ lifestyle as greedy and materialistic, lived out of harmony with nature and its laws. Yet at the end, when True Son tries to go back to the Indians, Richter shows us, that as the minister insisted, there is cruelty on both sides. We can see greed and imperious pride in some of the warriors in True Son’s tribe.

However, for the most part, “The Light in the Forest” paints an unforgettable portrait of the beauty in the Indian’s lifestyle. This lifestyle is doomed to perish by those intent on conquering the wilderness to serve their own way of life. The story raises the question of what true progress consists of – a question that we are still pondering, a half century later.

(check our catalog listing for this book)

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