The Light in the Forest By Conrad Richter Summary and Analysis Chapter 7

Summary

That night, True Son sleeps in an "alien place," sharing a bed with Del. Having been told that some of his white relatives were part of the Peshtank men who massacred Indians, he thinks about Cuyloga's description of a Christmas-day massacre of a Conestogo village, rekindling his hatred of the "white cowards," who had tortured and maimed Christian Indians who had survived the attack and voluntarily moved to a Lancaster jail for protection. Outraged by this horrific memory, True Son wants to get away from Del, and he dreads meeting family members who he's sure participated in these racist killings. Vulnerable and lonely, he leaves the bed and curls up in his bearskin in front of the bedroom's fireplace, which he prefers to the airtight atmosphere of a bed — another element of white life that's a direct contrast to the ways he grew up with. Even the natural act of sleeping is strange and uncomfortable.

The next morning, True Son wears his familiar Indian hunting frock and leggings to breakfast. By noon, Aunt Kate threatens to bathe and dress him if he doesn't wash with soap and put on the donated clothes. Gordie and Del teach him how to clean his body and to dress in the white manner of doing things. At a family reception, Uncle Wilse baits his silent nephew by insulting True Son's Lenni Lenape background and the Indian language. When Del translates True Son's defensive comments about the Indian language, Wilse insults True Son's Indian father as a heathen who talked about God before murdering Christian men and women. Finally speaking in heavily accented, halting English, True Son retorts that Wilse, who talks about being a Christian, massacred the Conestogo. Wilse replies that they got what they deserved.

To prove his insistence that whites are savages, True Son tells the story of David Owens, a white man who lived with the Muskingum but who slaughtered his Indian wife and daughters and returned to Philadelphia to live. Wilse slaps True Son for suggesting that David Owens must be Wilse's brother because both men desperately hate Indians, but Wilse also says that he wishes that David Owens were his brother. True Son lapses into stony silence.

Analysis

The sedate, white setting of True Son's bedroom contrasts the comfortable Indian lodge that was so familiar to him in the Lenni Lenape village. Eighteenth-century American colonial beds were often boxed enclosures walled in with sliding drapes to ward off drafts and hold in body heat. The feeling of suffocation annoys True Son, who is used to sleeping outdoors in contact with the earth. The bed will also be important in Chapter 10 as a battleground on which the boy struggles for his life against an undiagnosed fever.

Still healthy here in Chapter 7, True Son feels imprisoned both in the house and in the unfamiliar clothes. His uncomfortable reactions mirror other stifling aspects of white life, such as wearing boots and the white man's concept of discipline and family rules — again a direct contrast to those of his Indian family — all of which test the boy's ability to obey his Indian father's command to stay calm and not react violently. Another cultural humiliation is the job of carrying water. Within the clearly defined gender roles of the Lenni Lenape, hauling buckets is women's responsibility. Note also that some stereotypes persist regardless of race. True Son finds the scent of white people "offensive" and cannot distinguish his relatives because "all whites look alike." A more serious omen of things to come is the hate-filled encounter between True Son and his Uncle Wilse, which clearly establishes their relationship as victim and racist tormenter, respectively.

Richter condemns white Christian hypocrisy when he narrates racist atrocities committed on Christmas. Cuyloga connects the assault against the Conestogo with December, "the month that the white men claim their good, kind Lord and master was born in." After mounted horsemen burned the Conestogo village, the trusting Conestogo accepted shelter in the Lancaster jail but eventually were killed, in part because they had lost their "Indian caution." Cuyloga summarizes white supremacy: "But the white men do not want the Indians even to share the common air." His comments about scalping, indecencies, and mutilation reinforce True Son's hatred of whites.

One of Richter's themes in the book is the importance of different languages to America's racial history. Richter makes clear that because Indians have a rich language, and language indicates complexity and richness of thought, the Indian language proves that Indians are not simple savages but have a heritage and belief system equally complex and in some cases superior to that of whites. Through Del's translation, True Son indicates that the Delaware language is the parent tongue that Indian speakers must learn in order to communicate with each other. To emphasize that the Delaware language is not "gibberish," he notes that English contains at least three Delaware words: tomahawk, wigwam, and Susquehanna. When he begins to talk about the many ways the Delaware can refer to God, however, Uncle Wilse reacts as though English were the only proper language for religious use, scorning and degrading the Delaware for discussing God and then killing Christians. This chapter again points out both the contrast in religious views that separates whites and Indians, and their unified belief that their God approves of the killing that they do.

Concerning True Son's story about the senseless slaughter of the Conestogo, both Wilse and Uncle George Owens justify vigilantism, in which people take the law into their own hands. Such vigilantism was a system of retaliation that served as frontier justice before the rule of law was officially established. The uncles' excuse about why the Conestogo were killed in cold blood is typical of the code of frontier individualism: Racists maintain that written law protects Indians while punishing white men. Again, we see the same arguments among racists today who claim that they need to take the law into their own hands by lynch mobs or firebombs because the established law is too easy on the perceived lawbreakers. To end the quarrel, Harry Butler instructs True Son that he must not argue with his elders. The boy responds in the least aggressive way he knows how: He becomes silent.

Perhaps because nephew and uncle are equally racist against the other, Wilse recognizes the mask of silence that True Son dons as aggressive in its intent. "I'll warrant he's hatching out deviltry in his heart," he says. Wilse believes that Indians naturally lie, steal, and kill white men, and he believes that it's possible for white men to become Indians. He also sees that True Son is still an Indian, so he expects him to be trouble. Wilse's claiming that the Conestogo Christians deserved to die because they were only pretending to be Christians until they could find a good time to slaughter the whites ironically recalls Cuyloga's advice to True Son to go along and wait until the time is right to extract revenge. We know that True Son has a plan.

Glossary

ghost pipes Indian pipes, grayish forest plants that live on decaying plant matter rather than like green plants, which make food through the action of photosynthesis.

bolster a long pillow or cushion that extends across the head of a bed or the back of a settee to support the head and neck.

Conestogo a tribe of the Iroquois nation and kin of the Lenni Lenape. The Conestogo fought unsuccessful battles against the Mohawk and dwindled to only twenty survivors, whom whites slew in 1763.

Ottawa an Algonquin-speaking tribe living north of the Great Lakes that sided with American settlers during the French and Indian Wars.

Quakers a religious sect of pacifists who defended Indians. (Indians often referred to Quakers as "Quekel.")

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