The Education of Little Tree is a highly acclaimed memoir of Depression-era life for Native Americans. It was written by Forrest Carter, who based the story on his own life, and it is a regular addition to school reading lists. Here’s the plot synopsis, as presented by Delacourte for the twenty-fifth anniversary edition:
The Education of Little Tree tells of a boy orphaned very young, who is adopted by his Cherokee grandmother and half-Cherokee grandfather in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee during the Great Depression.
“Little Tree” as his grandparents call him is shown how to hunt and survive in the mountains, to respect nature in the Cherokee Way, taking only what is needed, leaving the rest for nature to run its course.
Little Tree also learns the often callous ways of white businessmen and tax collectors, and how Granpa, in hilarious vignettes, scares them away from his illegal attempts to enter the cash economy. Granma teaches Little Tree the joys of reading and education. But when Little Tree is taken away by whites for schooling, we learn of the cruelty meted out to Indian children in an attempt to assimilate them and of Little Tree’s perception of the Anglo world and how it differs from the Cherokee Way.
The person who wrote this book knew, personally, about the pain inflicted upon the Cherokee by white people… and that is why this story is unusually interesting.
Forrest Carter, as it happened, never existed. That’s not to say there was not an author who called himself Forrest Carter, but the Florida resident with the dark skin was merely a Caucasian who carefully kept himself tanned. He wasn’t just any Caucasian, though; he had been born and raised Asa Earl Carter.
Carter decided to assume a new identity because, by the 1970s, he had become nationally reviled under his birth name. Asa rose to national prominence as the writer of George Wallace’s “Segregation Now, Segregation Forever” speech. A KKK leader, he later ran against Wallace when he felt that Wallace was betraying his white supremacist roots.
Unable to make any money under his real name, he turned to writing, producing the books which were the basis for The Outlaw Josey Wales and, eventually, Education of Little Tree. Before the “memoir” was published, however, a reporter for the New York Times connected the dots and produced a comprehensive story on exactly who Forrest was, and what he had done in his past.
Delacourte, having a KKK leader and one of the most rabid segregationists in American history under its banner, did the only thing that made fiscal sense: they pretended the expose had never happened. Instead, “Forrest” was sent on the talk show circuit, where he proceeded to lie to national television hosts and present himself as from a race which he still, privately, loathed.
The book was published as a true story… something plastered all over the jacket… and Forrest became a hero for millions, the poster child for the Cherokee experience in the early 20th century.
Here’s the trailer for the Education of Little Tree movie, produced in 1997. It was nominated for the Humanitas Prize, described as for “film and television writing intended to promote human dignity, meaning, and freedom.” Luckily, it didn’t win.
Question of the night: What’s your favorite western?