The Light in the Forest By Conrad Richter Summary and Analysis Chapter 4

Summary

True Son, Half Arrow, and Little Crane discuss the odd behaviors of the white soldiers: talking too loud, getting too close to a speaker's face, and talking all at once, like rude children. Little Crane also criticizes how whites are overly possessive of their things.

True Son dreads the eventual separation from his friends. The trio spends the night on the western bank of the river that flows past Fort Pitt. The next morning, Half Arrow and Little Crane discover the corpse of a Mohawk, who has been murdered and scalped.

Ready now to cross the river, Del informs Half Arrow and the other Indian followers that they must turn around and go back to their village. When Del unties True Son's arms for the river crossing, True Son lunges at Del, who again ties him with ropes. Half Arrow reminds his friend that Cuyloga wanted True Son to avoid trouble with whites and to act like a stoic warrior. True Son crosses the river with the expedition, leaving his two friends behind.

Analysis

Chapter 4 illustrates the skewed logic of racist thinking. Ignoring the fact that True Son was born white, Little Crane says that white people are weak because they have mixed blood. Unlike the Lenni Lenape, an "original people," whites are an impure race, made "foolish and troublesome" by conflicting traits of their ancestors. It doesn't occur to Little Crane that the Lenni Lenape custom of adopting white captives adds the same impurities to the Lenni Lenape gene pool.

To further prove white inferiority, Half Arrow derides the Bible as proof that whites have no instinctive morality; they must learn right from wrong by "the cumbersome labor of reading." To Half Arrow, the idea of writing God's word is unthinkable. He boasts that Indians know what is good and what is bad without having to rely on anything but themselves.

Richter uses the two boys and Little Crane to criticize white ways. The three marvel that white men dishonor trees and seek rich dirt to plow into farmland. They ridicule whites' ineptitude at fire-building and open-hearth cooking. However, what Richter fails to mention is white skills at creating metal cook pots and weapons and making spyglasses, three revolutionary innovations that American aborigines lacked until Europeans brought them to the Western Hemisphere. Later in the novel, Richter uses whites to criticize Indian ways, as when Myra says to True Son/Johnny, "You've had a hard fate, but thank God your life was spared and you're home with us again." Myra implies that the Indian way of life is more difficult, and thus less pleasing, than the white way of life. She fails to see Johnny's robust health and strength as positive signs of the Indian culture. Both sides, then, are prone to highlighting the negative, while refusing to acknowledge the positive aspects of the two cultures.

After a chilling act of random violence — the unexplained murder of a Mohawk — the two boys and Little Crane ally against the whites, even though the guards have killed a man the Lenni Lenape would deem an enemy. Richter remarks, ". . . though dogs may fight among themselves they are one against the wolf." Using animals to express a moral is typical of Indian fables, which use situations in nature as models for developing wise, pragmatic, or ethical behavior. Using animals to express a moral is also common in other fables. Aesop, for instance, used animals in many of his fables, such as the story about the fox and the grapes.

The unity among True Son, Half Arrow, and Little Crane emphasizes a prophetic point: True Son continues to side with Indians rather than with the white race. Little Crane assumes that white soldiers are responsible for killing the Mohawk, one of them making friendly talk with him while another slips behind and tomahawks him. But Mohawks are unpopular with the Delawares, too, so there's no reason to exclude Indians as the Mohawk's killers, especially given the use of a tomahawk.

As Half Arrow delivers Cuyloga's parting words, Richter works in two more wise sayings, or aphorisms: "It is better to wait for your cause to be ripe like a persimmon on the snow before you fight back," and "It is wiser to be willing and be alive than be defiant and be dead." In the presence of a crying bear, the stoic Cuyloga once stated that it is more fitting to tolerate adversity with courage and die like a warrior. His statements characterize True Son's dilemma as True Son journeys across the river into the forest: to pretend temporarily to be a willing participant in his forced relocation back to white society, and thus stay alive, while plotting to fight back when the time is ripe, which he attempts later in the novel with disastrous results.

Richter uses the forest here as a metaphor for the difference between the white and Indian worlds. The river that separates the two sides of the forest also separates the Indian world from the white world. The forest is dark, but in the openness of the river, the world is very light. Richter's imagery of darkness on the Indian side of the forest is one of soothing comfort: "He could see the great oaks and shiver-bark hickories standing over the village in the autumn dusk." Richter's image of the forest as True Son/Johnny returns to his white family is also dark, but in a very stark way: "Here the desolate face of the earth had been exposed to dead brown weeds and stubble." But the river that separates the two cultures is light: ". . . he felt around him a golden and purple brightness as if the sun had risen over the mountains behind him." So, for True Son, the river is the light in the forest. As he struggles between his white and Indian identities, he is trapped in the light, where "he shivered with wet and cold."

Glossary

Mohawk a woodland tribe native to New England and Canada.

scalping the removal of skin and hair from a human skull. The practice ranged from removal of a quarter-sized circle from the crown to stripping the entire scalp and ears. The act was not a death sentence. In cases where the victim survived, damage to the cranium caused a lifetime hardship. Although the origin of scalping is unclear, history implicates European bounty hunters in its beginnings. Captain Pipe, a Delaware chief, reported to the British in 1781 that white authorities forced him to scalp victims and supplied hatchets for the task.

Mingo a nation consisting of Erie, Mingua, and Susquehannock. The Mingo settled in Sandusky, Ohio, in the 1750s. A rival of Algonquin-speaking tribes, they are marked by a distinct language called Mingo.

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