Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Light in the Forest

by Conrad Richter. Ballantine Books, 1953. I think I read this in Jr. High but I didn't remember it at all. I have recently read criticism of the use of the term "squaw" and reference to scalping on the American Indians in Children's Literature Blog by Debbie Reese. Those terms are all through the book and now that I doubt their authenticity that bothered me a lot.

The story is of a young man named True Son. He was taken captive by Delaware Indians when he was only four years old. He was adopted and became a beloved family member of his Native American family. When he is 14 a treaty is signed forcing his Indian father to send him back to his European American family. True Son is heart-broken. He hates life in the white settlement. He eventually makes his way back to his Indian home but the heartbreak doesn't end there.

This story moved me on a number of levels. The injustice of colonial take over of Indian land, the racism and violence inherent in the clash of cultures, and the issues of adoption and biological families competing for True Son's loyalty all touch me. I would love to be part of a discussion with young people reading this book for the first time, to hear their take on all these issues.

Edited to add: More on scalping. From what I have read online about the practice it was brought to the New World from Europeans. Colonial governments (including American, Canadian, French, English, Dutch and Spanish) paid a bounty for scalps during the 17th through 19th centuries, regardless of whether they came from Native Americans or settlers. Many sources claim that the Native Americans learned it from the Europeans. In Richter's story both the white settlers and the Indians scalp their enemies.

True Son is disgusted by evidence that the settlers have murdered and scalped Indian children. He later has a crisis of conscience and identity when he sees a fair haired child's scalp in Indian possession. He loses his tribal and family membership connections to his Indian people when he fails to help in an ambush attempt because he can not bring himself to draw a steamboat full of settlers closer to shore. He sees a child in the crowd and is reminded of his young white brother. His friends and family reject him after he warns the steamboat away in order to save the life of the child. I think he values the life of any child above his racial or family identifications. His Indian father and a handful of other characters share that value with him.

As far as the use of the word "squaw", from what I have read this morning it is a legitimate and respectful word for "woman" in Algonquian languages. Richter's book is about the Lenni Lenape who lived in a similar region of the U.S. (NY through PA). I don't think it's unreasonable for him to use the term. I would be interested to do a deeper language study of the book and research other terms he uses. Sprinkled through out the book are many terms in languages other than English but they are not identified by language or defined specifically.

I am interested in discussing whether anyone sees any racism in the book. The Native American cultures seem to be portrayed respectfully, with their values and integrity cherished by True Son. I realized this morning with a start that the white people in the book are mostly ignorant, repulsive and despicable. That's my race. It is interesting to me that I read the whole book looking for signs of racism against the Native Americans without feeling any acknowledged identification with the white people. I carry a deep sense of shame that it is my people - my direct family line - that the white people in the book represent. My mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts and grandparents lived that life. I want to be True Son and his adoptive Lenni Lenape family, not the white settlers in this story.

I am aware of a firm layer of resistance to dealing with being the white person in the story. And there is no where to go after that - what guidance do we have from popular culture or from our education systems to process that? When I read the story in Jr. High I was one of a class of about 25, half white and half black probably. The teacher was white. Did we talk about being white and black after we read the story?

For Mother Reader's 48 Hour book challenge: I read this book on Saturday, covering all 120 pages in 3 and half hours. I read another book later in the day, which I will blog about next chance I get.


Yogesh said...


First I read translation of "The Light in the Forest" in my mother tongue - Marathi - and then read the original book. I was deeply moved by this book.

I am neither American nor American-Indian. But stories like these are never alien to anyone.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book. It was quite satisfying to know someone else has also liked this book a lot. :)

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Yogesh I am so glad to hear you enjoyed this book too! And in Marathi - that's great! Thanks for stopping by my blog.