Conrad Richter, American literature's pioneer specialist, was passionate about American pioneer life and the people who settled the land. Of German ancestry, he drew on a frontier heritage that added drama to his writings. From notebooks, family memorabilia, and readings of such eyewitness accounts as Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail, Richter acquired authentic details about spirituality, herb collection and healing, storytelling and singing, and open-fire cookery. His straightforward fiction portrays a nation changing from open spaces and blue sky to large cities and smokestack-filled skylines, changes that, in his opinion, resulted in a spiritual and moral decline.
For style, Richter imitated the writings of Willa Cather to capture the fragile Western landscapes that buffalo hunters, railroaders, and investors were rapidly transforming. Interested in how people survive in a hostile world, he wrote about human experiences in frontier history. Central to his writing are the themes of love of freedom and learning from challenge, two themes that are important in his young-adult novel The Light in the Forest (1953).
An American classic historical novel for young-adult readers, The Light in the Forest takes place in the last half of the eighteenth century on the Pennsylvania frontier. The story is loosely based on actual historical events. Colonel Henry Bouquet's regiment defeated the Shawnee and Delaware tribes by introducing a smallpox epidemic to weaken the Indian forces. At a dramatic moment in October 1764, Bouquet marched to where the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers meet and demanded that the Indians return white captives whom they had captured. He threatened to slaughter Indian hostages and level Indian villages if his ultimatum was not met. Native leaders had no choice but to turn over 200 captives to Bouquet; many of these people didn't want to return to white society. Bouquet's reward for negotiating peace and securing a road west into Ohio was promotion to brigadier general in 1765. That same year, on September 2, he died of fever in Pensacola, Florida.
The Light in the Forest opens in October 1764. An epigraph — a short poem or saying at the beginning of a book — taken from William Wordsworth's poem "Intimations of Immortality" suggests where Richter got his idea for the novel's title. The reference to light in the third line of the poem represents the poet's concept of innocence found in young children. According to Wordsworth, "Shades of the prison-house" are the earthly experiences that spoil children's innocent hearts with such human faults as meanness and cruelty to others. Richter's novel centers on a cultural clash that pulls True Son from his Lenni Lenape foster parents and returns him to his boyhood identity as John Cameron Butler, child of wealthy white parents. True Son's exposure to murder and racism in Paxton, Pennsylvania, causes him to return to his Indian parents, but he finds himself caught between the two cultures in ways not acceptable to either.
A Historical Overview of the Novel
1614 Dutch explorers enter Lenni Lenape territory along the Delaware River, which today forms the eastern border of Pennsylvania.
1631 Delaware Indians massacre Dutch settlers.
1681 England's Charles II bestows the Pennsylvania charter on Quaker settler William Penn. Quakers establish Pennsylvania as a holy experiment in religious tolerance, which includes living at peace with Indians. Chief Tamanend of the Delaware agrees to a peace treaty, which lasts for seventy years.
1720 The Delaware migrate west to Ohio to join with the Wyandotte and Shawnee Indians against white settlers who are invading their lands. Pennsylvania authorities complete the Walking Purchase, a document that tricks the Delaware Indians out of a half million acres of land.
1750 Traders and settlers overrun Pennsylvania in search of land and furs.
1754 The French and Indian War begins multinational combat. Chippewa Indians (Ojibway), possibly led by Pontiac, chief of the Ottawas, defeat General Edward Braddock near Fort Dusquesne.
1759 In January, General John Forbes builds the foundations of Fort Pitt.
1762 Pontiac unites tribes as far south as the Mississippi River in order to thwart British expansionism.
1763 Settlers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, annihilate the last surviving Conestogo Indians. On April 27, Pontiac holds a conference with other Indian tribes near Detroit, Michigan, to complain of British wrongs against Indians and to plan an attack on Fort Detroit. The French and Indian War ends. On July 31, Pontiac's Rebellion threatens the peace; Pontiac's forces seize ten forts and attack Fort Detroit and Fort Pitt. Combined Indian raids kill 2,000 Pennsylvanians.
1764 On November 17, Pontiac submits to British forces, and the Pontiac Rebellion unofficially ends.
1766 On July 24, the Pontiac Rebellion officially ends with a treaty signed at Oswego, New York.
1769 On April 20, a Peoria brave clubs Pontiac to death in Cahokia, Illinois.
1776 Quakers defend Indian rights. The Delawares sign their first treaty with the United States.