Critical Essays The Frontier Tradition


The concept of colonization fueled a world body of lore called frontier literature. A major segment of Western literature in North, Central, and South America, its songs, ballads, adventure tales, legends, humor, drama, and myth also flourish in the Pacific, particularly Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand. Its standard literary devices, settings, and conventions are apparent in The Light in the Forest, as evidenced by these elements from the book:

  1. nature lore, the elevation of virgin wilderness to the status of holy ground, spirituality, and sacred trust. For Half Arrow and True Son, a summer stay in the Ohio Valley forest offers an untroubled period of reflection and self-discovery. Similarly, other frontier nature lore approaches the fervor of Indian
  2. animism, a belief in divine spirits in lakes and rivers, mountains, wild animals, and trees. Notable works of this type of literature include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha, Jack London's The Call of the Wild and White Fang, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling.
  3. the family, a staple in all literature, which exists on shaky ground in a developing nation troubled by controversy and danger. For the Butlers, eleven years without Johnny is a long time to suffer fears for his life and longings for his return. Myra Butler so internalizes the theft of her four-year-old son from white civilization that she becomes an emotional and physical invalid in her bedroom. Her husband takes a less drastic retreat among his household accounts and lets material profits replace the child that vanished from their lives. Among other enduring family-oriented stories of the frontier are Lauren Kessler's Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family, Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series, and Fred Gipson's Old Yeller.
  4. greed, the main motivation in conquering a land that belongs to someone else. As though they were wiping out the native history of North, South, and Central America, Europeans self-centeredly dubbed the Western Hemisphere as the "New World." In The Light in the Forest, Lenni Lenape cynicism about their white neighbors derives from past losses as settlers stream into virgin forests. Former dealings with negotiators frequently soured as treaties misrepresented or concealed the white intruders' true motivation: stealing Indians' ancestral lands while forcing eastern forest dwellers farther from their home grounds. A standard theme in frontier literature, greed motivates much of Mark Twain's Roughing It, Edgar Allan Poe's "Eldorado," and Edna Ferber's Cimarron.
  5. displacement, the social order that results when newcomers force residents off their land. Uncertain where he belongs and to what parents, True Son/Johnny is the perfect example of a displaced person. The only love he feels is for his Lenni Lenape family and for one white person: his brother, Gordie. To a lesser degree, he admires Del Hardy, a man who has undergone the same double-culture upbringing that True Son experiences. Cultural displacement is not unique to Richter's story. It permeates much of frontier lore, including Michael Dorris' A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, George Eastman's The Soul of the Indian, Mary Haskin Richards' Winter Quarters, and N. Scott Momaday's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn.
  6. the outsider, the outlaw or outcast, a standard figure of Western lore. True Son represents the social pariah. His inability to fit into the Indian way of life or the Paxton way of life at the end of the book places him on the outskirts of both groups. Because of his divided loyalties, he is neither Lenni Lenape brave nor patriotic son of the Butler family. His shaky position is common to the shifting values and lifestyles of the frontier, as depicted in the prairie lore of Willa Cather's My Ántonia and such Western classics as Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage, Dorothy Johnson's "A Man Called Horse," Mariano Azuela's The Underdogs, and Jack Schaefer's Shane.
  7. racial conflict, the unavoidable issues of ownership, lifestyle, and belief systems that arise when cultures occupy disputed territory. The distorted claims of one race against outsiders are found in The Light in the Forest, in the sufferings of both True Son and his black acquaintance, Bejance. Because the white people of Paxton feel racially superior, they metaphorically enslave Bejance and treat True Son with suspicion. Examples of other frontier literature dealing with racial conflict include Edna Ferber's Giant, Laurence Yep's Dragonwings, Ruthanne Lum McCunn's Thousand Pieces of Gold, and Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a testimony to frontier genocide — the killing of an entire race of people.
  8. law and order, a core issue in the ill-defined territories as they passed from open range and forest to settled farm, hamlet, and town. The poorly controlled vigilantism of Colonel Elder's Peshtank militia illustrates the potential for violence, even in settled areas like Paxton, which represents civilized society. Law-and-order literature divides into two segments: fiction, including The Light in the Forest, and nonfiction, including Theodore Roosevelt's Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, the autobiographical Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshall, and Glenn Shirley's Belle Starr and Her Times.