Critical Essays Land and Clothes as Symbols in The Light in the Forest


Richter's text is rich in visual imagery, particularly the use of paths, roads, tracks, trails, and traces, all depicting choices followed by native and white Americans to some anticipated end, whether adventure, livelihood, or vengeance. The confrontation of native peoples with European newcomers takes place along the frontier, an identifiable boundary that continues to shift westward as the influx of settlers displaces Indians. Settlers change the contours of the land by clear-cutting forests and plowing and fencing open fields. Thus, the symbolic road back to Paxton becomes a moral challenge for True Son. To the west, hostile Indians reject his membership in their tribe because he was born white; to the east, hostile whites, even members of the Butler family, act out of racial hatred of Indians. As True Son makes his way back into his birth family, the extended confrontation erupts in isolated acts of violence, discourtesy, and unsubtle sneers at True Son, a white boy acting "injun" in defiance of an ideal of white Christian propriety.

Land is not the only element that changes with the arrival of Europeans to the Western Hemisphere. Varied clothing and hair styles symbolize membership in the opposing groups of Indians and whites. In the forest, True Son and Half Arrow wear the leggings, hunting frock, and moccasins of the forest Indian, a practical form of dress made from the skins of local animals. These garments are simply made from tanned hides. They protect the body from cold and wet while remaining as flexible as they were on the animals they once covered.

In Paxton, True Son must wear the clothes and boots suited to colonial tastes and materials. Dressed in shirts, pants, and leather footwear, the boy can no longer feel the texture of earth under his feet. To him, white people's clothing is another form of imprisonment, another denial of personal freedom.

In the final scene of the book, clothing takes on a thematic significance by seeming to re-imprison the anguished True Son. Cuyloga forces his former son to bear the disgrace of treachery by wearing the clothing removed from murdered whites: the ridiculously ill-fitting pantaloons and blouse that True Son earlier put on for the planned ambush. True Son struggles to fit muscular, mannish shoulders and upper arms into a blouse intended for a girl. If the boy returns to Paxton, he will once more have to dress in the white man's woven suits and clumping boots that separate him from his mother, the earth. Imprisoned in heart, head, and body, True Son faces a life of misery not of his own making.