The Education of Little Tree
|Country||United States of America|
|Publisher||Delacorte Press (USA)|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Preceded by||The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales|
|Followed by||Watch for Me on the Mountain|
The Education of Little Tree is a memoir-style novel written by Asa Earl Carter under the pseudonym Forrest Carter. First published in 1976 by Delacorte Press, it was initially promoted as an authentic autobiography recounting Forrest Carter's youth experiences with his Cherokee grandparents in the Appalachian mountains. However, the book was later shown to be a literary hoax perpetrated by Asa Earl Carter, a white political activist from Alabama heavily involved in white supremacist causes before he launched his career as a novelist.
The book was a modest success at its publication, attracting readers with its message of environmentalism and simple living and its mystical Native American theme. It became a bigger popular success when the University of New Mexico Press reissued it in paperback, and saw another resurgence in interest in 1991, entering the New York Times Best Seller list and receiving the first ever American Booksellers Association Book of the Year (ABBY) award. It also became the subject of controversy the same year when historian Dan T. Carter, a distant cousin of the author, definitively demonstrated that Forrest Carter was Asa Earl Carter, spurring several additional investigations into his biography. These investigations revealed that Carter had no Cherokee grandparents and had been a Ku Klux Klan member and segregationist political figure in Alabama who wrote speeches for George Wallace.
Carter was planning a sequel titled The Wanderings of Little Tree at the time of his death in 1979. A film adaptation was released in 1997. The book has been the subject of a number of scholarly articles, many focusing on the hoax and on the impact of the author's white supremacist background on the work.
The fictional memoirs of Forrest "Little Tree" Carter begin in the late 1920s when, as the protagonist, his parents die and he is given over into the care of his Cherokee grandparents at the age of five years. The book was originally to be called Me and Grandpa, according to the book's introduction. The story centers on a clever child's relationship with his Scottish-Cherokee grandfather, a man named Wales (an overlap with Carter's other fiction).
The boy's Cherokee "Granpa" and Cherokee "Granma" call him "Little Tree" and teach him about nature, farming, whiskey making, mountain life, society, love, and spirit by a combination of gentle guidance and encouragement of independent experience.
The story takes place during the fifth to tenth years of the boy's life, as he comes to know his new home in a remote mountain hollow. Granpa runs a small moonshine operation during Prohibition. The grandparents and visitors to the hollow expose Little Tree to supposed Cherokee ways and "mountain people" values. Encounters with outsiders, including "the law," "politicians," "guv'mint," city "slickers," and "Christians" of various types add to Little Tree's lessons, each phrased and repeated in catchy ways. (One of the syntactic devices the book uses frequently is to end paragraphs with short statements of opinion starting with the word 'which,' such as "Which is reasonable.")
The state eventually forces Little Tree into a residential school, where he stays for a few months. At the school, Little Tree suffers from the prejudice and ignorance of the school's caretakers toward Indians and the natural world. Little Tree is rescued when his grandparents' Native American friend Willow John notices his unhappiness and demands Little Tree be withdrawn from the school.
At the end, the book's pace speeds up dramatically and its detail decreases; A year or so later, Willow John takes sick, sings the passing song, and then dies. Two years after that, Granpa dies from complications of a fall, telling the boy "It was good, Little Tree. Next time, it will be better. I'll be seein' ye.", before slipping away.
Early the following spring after performing her Death Chant, Granma dies a peaceful death in her rocking chair on the front porch while Little Tree is away. The note pinned to her blouse reads: “Little Tree, I must go. Like you feel the trees, feel for us when you are listening. We will wait for you. Next time will be better. All is well. Granma.” Little Tree heads west with the two remaining hounds and works briefly on various farms in exchange for food and shelter.
The book ends just before the Great Depression after first one and then the other of Little Tree's last companions, two of Granpa's finest hounds, die, signaling his coming of age (Little Red falls through creek ice and Blue Boy dies a while later of old age), after which he moves on with his life, always remembering “The Way” which his grandparents instilled into his soul.
Literary, personal and political controversies
The book appeared during a blossoming period for Native American memoirs and genre fiction, both before and after it was shown to be a fictional work posing as factual memoir. The controversies and discussions surrounding the story are generally centered on these main areas:
- the clash of the factual details depicted in the book with those of the author's life
- the clash between the cultural descriptions given in the book and traditional language and culture as reported by Cherokee sources
- the possible legitimacy of fictionalized memoirs by a member of a privileged class depicting life within an underprivileged class
- the book's possible racial sympathies and the possible intentions of the author
These issues are magnified by the author's racism throughout his life and within the book itself and the fact that little personal information is known about Carter or his exact state of mind, outside of reports from his wife, between his withdrawal from political life and the publication of The Education of Little Tree. Carter had been an active participant in several white supremacist organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens' Council. He was also a speechwriter for Alabama governor George Wallace, for whom he allegedly wrote Wallace's famous line "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Although Carter claimed to be part Cherokee, in 1970 he ran for governor of Alabama against Wallace and others (Wallace eventually won another term after a runoff), on a White supremacist platform, finishing last among the candidates listed on the Democratic Party ballot.
In the years following his active political engagement, Carter left Alabama, changed his name, and began his second career as an author, taking care to conceal his background. He even claimed categorically in a 1976 article in The New York Times that he, Forrest, was not Asa Carter.
It is believed by some that Carter wrote The Education of Little Tree from his childhood memories of his Cherokee uncle, though his brother has said the family has no American Indian members. The publisher's remarks in the original edition of the book inaccurately describe Carter as "Storyteller in Council" to the Cherokee Nation. When Carter's background was widely publicized in 1991, the book was reclassified by the publisher as fiction. Today, a debate continues as to whether the book's lessons are altered by the identity of the author. As award-winning Native American author Sherman Alexie has said, "Little Tree is a lovely little book, and I sometimes wonder if it is an act of romantic atonement by a guilt-ridden White supremacist, but ultimately I think it is the racial hypocrisy of a White supremacist."
Members of the Cherokee Nation have said that so-called "Cherokee" words and many customs in The Education of Little Tree are inaccurate, and some have said that the novel's characters are stereotyped. Several scholars and critics have agreed with this assessment, adding that Carter's treatment of Native Americans possibly plays into the romantic but racist conceit of the "Noble Savage."
When Carter died in 1979, he was working on The Wanderings of Little Tree, a sequel to The Education of Little Tree, and on a screenplay version of the book. Twelve years after Carter's death, the fact that Forrest Carter was actually Asa Earl Carter was revealed in a 1991 New York Times exposé by Dan T. Carter, a distant cousin and history professor. The supposed autobiographical truth of The Education of Little Tree was revealed to be a hoax.
In 2007, Oprah Winfrey pulled the book from a list of recommended titles on her website. While Winfrey had promoted the book on her TV show in 1994, calling the novel "very spiritual," after learning the truth about Carter she said she "had to take the book off my shelf."
Prior to the public controversy surrounding the author's identity and legitimacy, The Education of Little Tree was critically acclaimed and won the 1991 American Booksellers Association Book of the Year (ABBY) award.
In 1997, the book was adapted into a film of the same title, which was initially meant to be a made-for-TV movie but was instead given a theatrical release. In 2011, a documentary, The Reconstruction of Asa Carter, which examines the life of the author, was released and has aired frequently on PBS.  On June 13, 2014, This American Life aired an episode (180 Degrees) about recounting the possible change of attitude of Asa / Forrest Carter.
- Carter, Dan T. "The Transformation of a Klansman." New York Times, October 4, 1991.
- "Southern History, American Fiction: The Secret Life of Southwestern Novelist Forrest Carter." In Rewriting the South: History and Fiction, ed. Lothar Honnighausen and Valeria Gennaro Lerda (Tübingen: Francke, 1993). 286-304.
- Gates, Henry Louis Jr. "'Authenticity', or the Lesson of Little Tree". New York Times Book Review, November 24, 1991.
- Dave, Randall. The tall tale of Little Tree and the Cherokee who was really a Klansman
- McGurl, Mark. "Learning from Little Tree: The Political Education of the Counterculture." Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 18, Number 2, Fall 2005, pp. 243–267.
- Carter, Dan T. (October 4, 1991). ""The Transformation of a Klansman". The New York Times. Retrieved June 20, 2014.
- "Is Forrest Carter Really Asa Carter? Only Josey Wales May Know for Sure" by Wayne Greenhaw, The New York Times August 26, 1976.
- "The Real Education of Little Tree"
- "Disputed Book Pulled From Oprah Web Site" by Hillel Italie, Associated Press, November 6, 2007.
- The Reconstruction of Asa Carter trailer, 2011, accessed June 15, 2013
- American Public Television synopsis of documentary The Reconstruction of Asa Carter, accessed June 15, 2013
- "180 Degrees [Transcript]". http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/527/transcript. This American Life.