In November, the Month of the First Snow, fifteen-year-old True Son faces a wrenching uprooting: He is among the white captives whom the Lenni Lenape and Shawanose are returning to white society. True Son was born to white parents but brought up in a Lenni Lenape village on the Tuscarawas River, in what today is Ohio. From age four, he was raised by a loving adoptive father and mother, Cuyloga and Quaquenga, and he thinks of himself as an Indian.
To avoid being forced to give up his Indian heritage, True Son steals away from his parents' lodging, blackens his face, and hides in a hollow tree. However, Cuyloga, his father, finds him and then drags him to the white authorities. Among the tents and temporary redoubts of white soldiers, True Son lies in despair with his face in the dirt. Del Hardy, a white military guard, tells Cuyloga that he must leave and go back home to his tribal village. Cuyloga says goodbye to True Son and requests that his son not disgrace the family. Because Del laughs at True Son's tears, the boy vows to kill him.
Richter only hints at True Son's emotional and moving arrival among Cuyloga's family after the sudden death of Cuyloga and Quaquenga's first son from illness. The adoptive parents treat him like the birth son they lost and confer a name on him that reflects their sincerity — True Son. The words that Cuyloga speaks to remove "white thoughts and meanness" from the white boy now known as True Son are the beginning of acculturation — learning a society's accepted ways of thinking and acting — that molds the boy into a proper Lenni Lenape brave. Also, to teach True Son to steel himself for hardship, Cuyloga's discipline and training require his adopted son to endure burning from a hot stone and freezing from sitting in the icy Tuscarawas River.
True Son now considers himself an Indian, the "true son" of Cuyloga and Quaquenga, so he doesn't think the requirement that the white captives be returned to white society refers to him. He vows that "Never would he give up his Indian life. Never!" Priding himself on his woods lore, he creeps away to a secret place and is surprised when Cuyloga tracks him to his hiding place on the Pockhapockink Creek. Even worse, his father forces him to the white men's camp. Distraught by the thought of returning to white society, the boy lies face down among the other captives. He takes comfort in an authentic detail of Indian life, the fragrance of the blended red willow bark and sumac leaves that serve as smoking material in Cuyloga's pipe. The familiar smell assures True Son that his father remains nearby, but the white guards, including twenty-year-old Del, force all Indians to leave the camp by nightfall.
From the novel's first line, "The boy was about fifteen years old," True Son/Johnny's identity is in question. He is not immediately identified as an Indian, and he does not consider himself to be a white person. This conflict introduces a main theme in the novel: the nature of authentic self-identity. True Son's sense of self has been turned upside down. After believing himself to be a worthy son of Cuyloga, he must now doubt not only his identity as an Indian but his Indian father's record of never having been wrong. After almost a lifetime of being taught to despise the whites for their beliefs and their attacks upon the Indians, he sees himself "torn from his home like a sapling from the ground and given to the alien whites who were his enemy!" From the first chapter, we are introduced to the conflict raging within True Son as he is returned to his birth identity as Johnny Butler. We know he cannot easily accept the cultural change. Throughout the novel, as he struggles between two worlds, he is neither True Son nor Johnny, but "the boy."
As both whites and Indians faced their hard lives on the plains, they sought courage and stoicism. Cuyloga's instructions to True Son to "go like an Indian" and "give me no more shame" reflect this theme (although True Son/Johnny ends up replacing courage and stoicism with anger and contempt), which is played out in many ways throughout the novel.
Lenni Lenape (lih nee lih nah pay) literally, "real men," the original name for the Delaware, a powerful agricultural nation established in the Delaware Valley. They are the parent tribe of the Mohican, Shawnee, Ojibway, and Nanticoke.
Shawanose the Shawnee, a nomadic tribe native to the Ohio Valley and members of the Algonquin language group. In the seventeenth century, the Iroquois ousted them from their ancestral home and forced a permanent migration to Pennsylvania. The most famous Shawanose were twin brothers, Tecumseh and Tenkswatawa, charismatic leaders and heroes of the Battle of Tippecanoe Creek on November 7, 1811. Tecumseh was killed in battle; his brother retired to Canada before resettling in Kansas.
the yellow vomit a native description of disease, perhaps yellow fever, one of the European maladies introduced by newcomers to the Western Hemisphere, which through vomiting and diarrhea quickly depletes the body.
redoubt a log structure used as a defendable stronghold against attack.
council house a meeting lodge where tribal elders and war chiefs conduct political discussions and settle territorial disputes.
Month of the First Snow November; the first of a series of native divisions of the year according to natural happenings rather than arbitrary names like January or May.