The Light in the Forest By Conrad Richter Summary and Analysis Chapter 9

Summary

In March, Myra Butler, still confined to her couch in her upstairs room, remembers the July eleven years earlier when workers were harvesting wheat. She recalls how Indian raiders kidnapped Johnny as he made a bark playhouse under a hickory tree. Aunt Kate interrupts Myra's sad memories to announce that Parson Elder is paying a pastoral call. Kate believes that Parson Elder is the person most responsible for Johnny's return, and she tells the parson that he must help restore Myra's low spirits in the face of Johnny's poor behavior. Myra winces at Kate's angry accusations against True Son. To keep peace in the family, the parson agrees to talk with the boy.

After True Son joins the trio in Myra's room, he dismays his mother and the parson by sitting on the floor and refusing hospitality. He concludes that the parson wants him to undergo Christian baptism. The parson admits that he seeks to improve the boy's behavior, to which True Son replies that his behavior is morally ethical by Indian standards: He honors Cuyloga and Quaquenga and doesn't swear. The parson admits that white people are often less than moral.

As the discussion between True Son and the parson becomes more confrontational, the boy identifies the parson as Colonel Elder, captain of the Peshtanks, who slaughtered the Conestogo. The parson rationalizes the attack as a local peacekeeping measure against the perceived threat of hostile Indians. After the boy departs, the parson consoles the mother by commenting that True Son was brought up by an above-average savage and is now acquiring white traits and behaviors. The parson hopes that agricultural field work and a future attraction to a white girl may help settle the boy into the white way of life.

Analysis

Richter presents the complex human drama from alternate points of view. Myra Butler's chronic illness is a paradox, a contradiction between an emotional illness and its physical effects, caused by the poignant loss of a child and — ironically — worsened by his return. The image of a mother suffering over a child makes us sympathize with Myra Butler, a loving character who took to her bed after Johnny was kidnapped. She prefers a dim room with windows closed as if to shut out the beauty of spring. Aunt Kate's assistance in combing Myra's hair and helping her into another gown suggests that Myra's withdrawal has sapped her strength for even small personal tasks.

Aunt Kate's role as antagonist — a character opposed to the main character in a story — reveals the problems that the family faces in reorienting True Son, the novel's protagonist, or main character, into white family life:

  1. True Son tries to run away and takes Gordie with him.
  2. True Son is ungrateful.
  3. True Son prefers Indian customs.
  4. True Son eats only when he's hungry, not at scheduled meals.
  5. True Son shames the family before their kin and neighbors.
  6. True Son won't converse and belittles white discussion as uninteresting.
  7. True Son justifies the Indian point of view and value system.
  8. True Son has stolen knives, a rifle and patch box, powder and lead, and corn meal, or so Aunt Kate accuses.

The never-ending hatred and mistrust between aunt and nephew electrifies the scene here in Chapter 9: Kate indicates that True Son's facial similarity to Grandfather Espy emphasizes the fact that True Son is part of the Butler family, but she is tempted to criticize the boy as unfit because he acts as though he were raised "the offshoot of some squaw and no-account trader."

After Kate serves whiskey, True Son refuses his portion. Parson Elder declares that rejecting the drink is unsociable, to which True Son retorts that the white man's whiskey causes Indians to get drunk, to sell their goods too cheaply to whites, and to commit crimes. He chastises the parson for giving whiskey to Gordie and implies that alcohol could make a drinker murder his own family.

Central to this chapter is the contrast between opposing points of view. Richter uses the discussion between True Son and Parson Elder to express his belief that Indians learned how to swear and malign God from whites. However, so that one side isn't seen as completely right and the other as completely wrong, Richter has True Son deny that Indians are capable of murdering and scalping children; True Son will learn differently later in the novel.

The back-and-forth debate between True Son and Parson Elder forces the parson onto difficult moral ground: He must justify mob violence against Indian children. When True Son accuses the parson of supporting the Paxton Boys' senseless killing of the Conestogo, the parson replies that the men were "out of hand" and might have killed his own horse if he had tried to stop them. True Son snaps, "Better your favorite horse than the favorite young ones of the poor Indian."

In the final stage of the parson's argument with True Son, the parson assumes a how-dare-you-question-me attitude in order to bring the argument to an end while getting his own points across: He speaks quietly and firmly, asks no questions, provokes no outbursts, and allows no interruption. Finally, he dismisses True Son like a schoolboy let out of class. As often happens when adults overpower young people by denying them a chance to defend themselves and their actions, the youth's feelings of powerlessness only widen the communication gap between generations.

Parson Elder does acknowledge to the women that they need patience and shouldn't be discouraged because more than ten years of Indian training can't be erased overnight. His noting of the changes he has already witnessed in Johnny, seeing him only on a weekly basis in church, provides an inkling of the identity conflict that Johnny will continue to experience when he returns to his Indian family. He is too Indian to be white, and too white to be Indian any longer.

Glossary

cradlers an evocative word that enhances Johnny's innocence at the time of his abduction; cradlers are grain harvesters who cut stalks with a cradle scythe.

snaith the curved handle of a mowing scythe.

redded dialect for "readied."

patch box a container for pieces of greased cloth or leather used as wadding for rifle charges or as cleaning rags forced down the bore by the tip of a ramrod.

Indian meal coarse-ground corn meal.

squaw as used by Kate, an insulting reference to an Indian female. Originally, the Narraganset term was a synonym for woman or wife.

dram a standard measure used in pouring alcoholic beverages.

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