Saturday, September 19, 2020

Not Recommended: Conrad Richter's THE LIGHT IN THE FOREST

The Light in the Forest
Written by Conrad Richter
Published in 1953
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Review Status: Not Recommended

****


More than once over the years, someone has written to ask me about Conrad Richter's The Light in the Forest. Given its age (published in 1953), I suspected it would have problematic content and I suppose I didn't have the energy at the moment to do anything with it. Last week, I decided to give it a try. As you see by red X on the three book covers above, my initial suspicions were correct. The Light in the Forest is not recommended. The cover on the right is the spin off version that came out when Disney turned Richter's book into a movie in 1958. A fraud--Iron Eyes Cody--was the "technical advisor" for that film. 

I read the acknowledgements and chapter one of Richter's book and did a series of tweets as I read. I'm copying them here:

In the acknowledgements, Richter says he was struck by stories of white captives who had been returned to their white families, but who wanted to run away to rejoin the Indian home where they'd lived.
As a small boy, Richter wanted to run away to live "among the savages."

The acknowledgement is romantic (and stereotypical) in tone. It says Indians were repelled by American ideals and restrained manner. I don't know what ideals Richter had in mind but "restrained" on the heels of "savages" might be a hint of what is to come as I read the book.

The main character is 15. He's white and has been living with Indians as an adopted son since he was 4. The village has received word that they must give up their white prisoners.
He is shocked that it includes him.

Cuyloga (the Indian man who adopted him) had "said words that took out his white blood and put Indian blood in its place." He was thereafter called True Son.
I'm always curious as to how a writer comes up with a Native name for a character. I looked up Cuyloga...

... and got hits to Sparknotes and Cliffsnotes and gradesaver and enotes and quizlet and coursehero.... all of which tell me the book is used a lot in schools.

I think we're meant to think that "Cuyloga" is a Lenape word. The people in this village would probably speak Lenape. But Cuyloga gave this white child he adopted an English name: "True Son." I wonder if Richter will use "True Son" throughout, or if he'll use a Lenape name?

In the first para of ch 1, we learn that Cuyloga taught True Son to "endure pain." True Son holds a hot stone from the fire "on his flesh to see how long he could stand it." In winter, Cuyloga sat smoking on the bank while True Son sat in the icy river till Cuyloga said ok.



True Son doesn't want to be returned to the whites, so he blackens his face (why?!) and hides in a hollow tree. But, Cuyloga finds him. True Son is "tied up in his father's cabin like some prisoner to be burned at the stake."
Burned at the stake?! Again,
Woman facepalming


Cuyloga takes True Son to the soldiers nearby. True Son resists, which embarrasses Cuyloga. He leaves and True Son imagines their village and its "warriors and hunters, squaws, and the boys, dogs and girls he had played with."
Squaws?

I've read enough of Richter's THE LIGHT IN THE FOREST to know I will be asking people not to use it. It is old, stereotypical, and there are better choices. If the goal is to study conflicts between Native and White people, Erdrich's BIRCHBARK HOUSE is much better!



Today I'll expand a bit on some of what I noted in those tweets. 

Richter's idea that Native people teach their kids how to "endure pain" is something I see a lot. I've not traced that down to see where it came from and I'm not doing it now. Certainly, Native and non-Native parents in the past and in the present, teach their kids things they need to know to live. But come on: pulling a stone from a fire and putting it on your flesh... that would cause injury! It doesn't make sense to me. 

That "burned at the stake" bit is also a common occurrence and it, too, makes me wonder where it came from. If you've watched old westerns--or even new things like the television series of Little House on the Prairie--you've seen Indians tying someone at a stake and then lighting a fire to burn them alive. You probably remember that Europeans did that to people they thought were heretics or witches. (There's another popular trope that isn't in Richter's book but that you should be wary of: that a captive would be cooked alive in a pot and then eaten.) From what I can tell there's one incident of a white person being "tied to a stake" and tortured. That's William Crawford and I'll be doing research on that to see what I find. I welcome your research into all this, and if you find things of note, let us know in a comment.

I noted that "True Son" uses the word "squaw." A search of the text indicates it appears 20 times. Reading those passages, it is clear that "True Son" has a derogatory view of women, Native or otherwise. Richter's story depicts them as a beast of labor whose work is beneath that of a man. 

The word "Injun" eleven times, and scalp (or variations of it) appear 43 times. The emails I get from teachers who want to use the book... now, they make me cringe. Obviously the book is a lot like Little House on the Prairie: holding quite a solid space in peoples' reading memory, coupled with the idea that this is a good book. It is not. I do not recommend it. 



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