The Light in the Forest By Conrad Richter Summary and Analysis Chapter 6

Summary

After two days of travel and a ferry ride across the Susquehanna River, Harry Butler reintroduces True Son, whom he calls Johnny, to his hometown of Paxton. At one point during the journey, the boy spurs his horse into the forest along the shore and hides in the underbrush, but Del and Mr. Butler soon return him to his horse. As they near the Butler mansion, Mr. Butler doubts the success of the mission. Once home, he introduces True Son to his brother, Gordie, and Aunt Kate.

Upstairs in the house, True Son encounters his white mother, Myra Butler, who kisses him, calls him John, and laments that he has grown up in "heathen darkness and ignorance." She compares him to his stubborn Uncle Wilse and threatens to keep him confined in the room until he speaks his "own name." She does not want him to look like a "savage" in front of her family and friends who are coming to see him the following day. True Son rejects his white name but finally attempts to speak English, which Mrs. Butler sees as at least some progress. True Son is horrified by the gray pants and a yellow jacket she gives him to wear, hand-me-downs from his cousin Alec. To True Son, they are symbols of white treachery.

Analysis

In this chapter, Richter further discusses the concept of ethnocentrism, the belief of a group that their customs and attitudes are normal and natural, as opposed to the lifestyles of outsiders, which the group considers strange or exotic. He indicates True Son's identification with Indian ways by contrasting his reactions to the landscape to Del's. For example, when roofs and chimneys first appear on the horizon, Del rejoices at this evidence of permanent white settlements. The sound of the English language and the promise of the settlers' deeper penetration into the wilds uplift him. After journeying three hundred miles roundtrip on "savage trails and traces," Del prefers a firm roadbed to a forest track, the opposite of True Son's preference for soft moss underfoot. To Del, fences, barns, and sheds "had an air of white man's industry and their houses of peace." He is gladdened at the throngs of people that greet him and his traveling party, whereas True Son feels that the people are a menace. Only the name Susquehanna lifts the boy's eyes to scan the area where an Indian burial plot was defaced and overtaken by white usurpers eager for land.

In the shift of settings from the Lenni Lenape village to Carlisle, True Son has much to learn. His long stay among Indians is obvious in his unfamiliarity with multi-story homes. Gordie, who is delighted to have his brother home at last, demonstrates how to climb the stairs to an upper floor. At another social impasse, Gordie smoothes over a difficult situation by requesting True Son's native clothing. Although previously separated by physical and cultural distance, the two brothers develop an unspoken understanding.

The personal barriers between True Son and the Butler family are more than a young child like Gordie can breach. The resentful older Butlers, particularly the hostile Aunt Kate, draw an invisible line between those whites who grew up with their birth families in colonial Pennsylvania and John Cameron Butler, the white abductee who ceased being ethically, culturally, and spiritually white at age four. Except for the gentle younger brother, no one welcomes True Son on his own terms or offers him unconditional love. Ironically, True Son flashes the same dark eyes as his birth-mother's, a suggestion that the two share a stubbornness for doing things their own way, no matter what anyone else says.

Some readers may not see the older Butlers as resentful, with the exception of Aunt Kate. Both father and mother are prepared to welcome Johnny back and love him. They don't accept him as Indian, which is only natural because he is their biological son. Some might say that Johnny is the one who doesn't even meet them half way. The Butlers have kept his image in their hearts as their own true son for eleven years, but he has not kept their image as his true parents. He has forgotten them and has replaced them with his captors, their tormenters. They aren't prepared for him to be as "Indian" as he is, but they still think of him as their son.

Readers can only speculate on how Johnny would behave with his Indian family had he been kidnapped at fifteen instead of four. The Butlers may be insensitive, but they are not unloving. The fact that Johnny prefers the people who caused his birthparents great fear and sadness compounds the horror that they have been living with since losing their child.

Glossary

Peshtanks the original pronunciation of Paxton, a township in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The bloody history of the area strikes fear in True Son/Johnny, who connects it with a Peshtank massacre.

Susquehanna a river that runs from New York and Maryland into Pennsylvania.

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