Nothing in Common: Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest & Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

This is a catch-up post about two classics with nothing in common.

1.  Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest (1953)

Richter pretty cover LIGHT_IN_FORESTSo many of us read The Light in the Forest in school.  Does it hold up?

Yes, it is an American classic.  Richter, who won the Pulitzer for The Town and the National Book Award for The Waters of Kronos, is famous for his novels about life on the frontier in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

In The Light in the Forest, set in the eighteenth century, Richter relates the story of a white boy captured in an Indian raid in Pennsylvania.  Cuyloga, a warrior of the Lenni Lenape tribe, adopts John and renames him True Son.  He lives blissfully with his new family.  Ten years later, a treaty is signed, saying all the captives must be returned to their white families.  True Son is cruelly torn from his Indian family.

Richter movingly depicts True Son’s attachment to the beauty of the forest and the Lenni Lenape way of life.

He could see the great oaks and shiver-bark hickories standing over the village in the autumn dusk, the smoke rising from the double row of cabins with the street between, and the shining, white reflection of the sky in the Tuscarawas beyond.  Fallen red, brown and golden leaves lay over roofs and bushes, street and forest floor.  Tramping through them could be made out the friendly forms fo those he knew, warriors and hunter, squaws, and the boys, dogs and girls he played with.

On the long march, guarded by soldiers, True Son is accompanied by his  friend Half Arrow.  Little Crane, who walks with his white squaw (who will also be returned to her white family), reminds them that the Great Spirit made the Indians, with their black hair and dark eyes and skins. On the other hand, the whites, who are light, dark, or in-between, are “a mixed breed.” He says, “The reason they act so queer is because they’re not an original people.  Now we Indians are an original people.”

True Son, aka John, is unable to adjust to life with his white family. When John’s uncle murders White Crane, who has come in peace with Half Arrow to visit True Son, he and Half Arrow run away and take refuge in the forest.  Their time there  is idyllic:  “Abundance supported them.  Completeness was for the taking.  Days unfolded, rich and inexhaustible.”

But nothing is simple:  violence begets violence.   When the boys return to the Lenni Lenape, some insist on revenge for White Crane’s death, and Cuyloga, True Son’s father, reluctantly agrees.  Neither the whites nor Indians are completely innocent, though Richter leans towards the culture of the Indians.

A fascinating, heart-rending little gem of a book.

1.  Virginia Woolf’s Orlando:  A Biography (1928)

Woolf penguin Orlando+coverWoolf’s comic novel, Orlando, was a surprise when it was published in 1928 after To the Lighthouse.

Orlando is one of Woolf’s lightest books, dedicated to Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West.  In Alexandra’ Harris’s Virginia Woolf, a wonderful short book about Woolf’s life and work, she says that Woolf’s teasing novel is a a fanciful biography of Vita Sackville-West, with a tip of the hat to her ancestors.  And it had the tone of Woolf’s playful letters to Sackville-West. The hero, Orlando,  is a beautiful androgynous man, a courtier, and an aspiring poet.  He lives for more than three centuries, first as  a man and then as a woman.

Harris quotes Elizabeth Bowen, who In her 1960 preface to Orlando remembered,

This Orlando–we did not care for the sound of it. The book was, we gathered, in the nature of a prank, or a private joke; worse still, it was personal.”

Virginia woolf orlandoSome fans of Woolf’s abstract novels were put off by her whimsical portrait of Orlando, whom we first meet as a 16-year-old in the Elizabethan age .  “He–for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it–was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.”  Slicing and beheading is not the usual way to begin a book, and in this first chapter there are many references to slicing and heads: Orlando’s father had struck the head from the shoulders of a pagan. And when Queen Elizabeth visits, the first thing she notices is Orlando’s head.  While his head is bowed, she strokes it.  And she invites him to her court.

As a  young man at Elizabeth’s court, Orlando has a doomed love affair with a beautiful Russian princess, whom he calls Sasha.  After a long winter festival, with Woolf’s fantastical descriptions of festivities and ice palaces on the frozen Thames, Sasha stands him up during a thaw and sails away on her ship with the gritty sailor she really loves.  Orlando, crushed, returns to his estate and works on his poem, “The Oak Tree.”   And when he invites Greene, a poet and comrade of Shakespeare and Marlowe, to visit and talk about poetry, Greene lambastes all the writers of his day.

Just as writers worry that Amazon will influence publishing, so Greene blames the booksellers for bad writing.  The Elizabethans cannot live up to the Greeks, he says.

Now all young writers were in the pay of the booksellers and poured out any trash that would sell.  Shakespeare was the chief offender in this way and Shakespeare was already paying the penalty.  Their own age, he said, was marked by precious conceits and wild experiments–neither of which the Greeks would have tolerated for a moment.  Much though it hurt him to say it–for he loved literature as he loved his life–he could see no good in the present and had no hope of the future.  Here he poured himself a glass of wine.

Greene also satirizes Orlando’s poem and deeply wounds him. Orlando decides to go to Constantinople as an ambassador.  While there, he magically falls into a coma and becomes a woman.   Now she is Lady Orlando, and when she returns to London, there is a lawsuit to see whether she is indeed entitled to her property.  (It goes on for centuries.)  She is a hostess who entertains Pope and Dryden, though their wit seems dry, pursues her own poetry, adjusts to changes of weather in the nineteenth century and finally publishes her  poem, “The Oak Tree.”   In the twentieth century she has become a wife and mother.  And, after all this time, she is only 36.

I enjoyed this literary fantasy, which reminds me of some of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s whimsical novels, particularly The Corner That Held Them, a comic novel about a convent in the 12th century.