The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter (Historical Young Adult Novel, 1953).
This brief (159 pages) YA book is considered a classic. A tale of a young man caught between two cultures, one he was born into and one he’s grown up in, who finds that he is tragically unable to fully embrace either.
It’s ten years before the American Revolution. True Son is a white kid of about 15, who was abducted more than a decade ago by a raiding party of Lenni Lenape (the Delaware, to you palefaces). Back in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania his name was John, but he’s now thoroughly Native American in his beliefs and outlook, and the proud adopted son of an impressive man named Cuyloga. Their village is in today’s Ohio. He had been content there…until a Colonial army from Fort Pitt came by, demanding that the Lenni Lenape (and their Shawnee allies) turn over all their white captives for return to their families.
To prevent outright war, the native villages comply and True Son (violently against his will) is dragged off to the east. His best friend/cousin Half Arrow and Little Crane, a slightly older brave whose white wife is also being forcibly repatriated, march with the column until they reach the Ohio River. Afterward, the closest thing he has for a friend is a young soldier who speaks the Indian language, but can’t begin to understand True Son’s heartbreak.
Returned to his equally uncomprehending birth-family, he learns he’s related to members of the infamous Paxton Boys–a militia responsible for the slaughter of a peaceful, Christianized Native village. While unable to understand or accept most of the unfamiliar white ways, he tries his best to honor Cuyloga’s instruction to be honorable. He finds he has a younger brother and they bond.
Time passes and this stranger in a strange land has just begun to partially accept his new reality when Half Arrow appears. He and Little Crane came to visit, but True Son’s uncle shot and killed Little Crane over a joke the young man told. True Son joins Half Arrow in attacking the uncle, then they flee–eventually returning home.
A revenge raid against white settlers follows, where True Son sees the ugly face of war firsthand for the first time. It turns out vengeful Indians are just as willing as whites to slaughter even children. His illusions shattered, he backs out of a plan to ambush a boatload of settlers upon seeing a child that reminds him of his little brother. His Lenni Lenape father saves him from a traitor’s death, but he’s disowned and sent back east to a decidedly uncertain future.
The son of a Lutheran minister, Richter spent part of his youth living within miles of where I live (though years earlier, of course). That and more especially the fact that he does his best to play fair with well-meaning if misguided figures on both sides of the bitter cultural divide True Son/Johnny finds himself thrust into drew me into the story. It’s a compelling story and deserving of its status as a recognized classic. The author also scores telling points by including an aged black slave with his own wistful story to tell–as well as serving as a historically valuable reminder that, in that time, there were a few bondsmen held in the future northern states, as well as the south.