Monday, January 26, 2015

Book Review: The Education of Little Tree

Title: The Education of Little Tree
       
Author: Asa Carter as "Forrest Carter"
       
Date: 1976
       
Publisher: Delacorte
       
ISBN: 0-8263-0879-1
       
Length: 216 pages
       
Quote: “I came to live with Granpa and Granma when I was five years old. The kinfolks had raised some mortal fuss about it.”
       
The writer known as Forrest Carter had published some novels before he produced this alleged memoir of his early childhood. Since then I’ve read numerous claims that the story he tells in this book is not, could not be, a true autobiography...but none of these claims documents anything about the man’s real childhood. Instead they wander off on tangents about his having committed hate crimes against African-Americans as a young man. The claim is thus “He can’t ‘really’ have been three-eighths Cherokee, because he hated African-Americans." Bosh. Much as I hate to disturb stereotypes that may be working in some of my relatives’ favor, the fact is that Cherokee genes do not automatically immunize people against hate, bigotry, or even stupidity.
       
Neither does having had three wonderful, idyllic years of early childhood with loving grandparents who died, for no obvious reason, far too young. In fact, I can imagine how the loss of grandparents might have contributed to Carter's embitterment.

And, was Asa Carter three-eighths Cherokee? Consider the photo evidence here. Biracial Americans born in 1925 tended to be ambivalent about the source of the kind of DNA Carter's face shows. He might have had Native American ancestors; he might not. He would certainly have seen the uglier side of White racism...even if his reaction to White racism was to buy into it and hate Blackness and Jewishness more than the average Euro-American did, even in 1950. (I hate to say it but that was, in fact, how some biracial and Southern European types tried to prove themselves White in those strange, sad, bad days.)
       
I’m not convinced, therefore, that The Education of Little Tree may not be as factual as most of the novelized versions of writers’ childhood memories are. Memory is never perfect. Novelized memories always have to leave things out, and usually have to simplify what’s left in. I can say this much: Carter knew the Blue Ridge Mountains. If he didn’t actually live there for three years, he was very close to someone who had.
       
The story ends with the tough little orphan heading west. We know that even in North Carolina , even in the 1930s, he wouldn’t have got far. Other brushes with schools, orphanages, bigoted White kinfolks, and “politicians” lie ahead of Little Tree. Could he have been convinced that all the people like his grandparents were dead, and that, in order to fit into the dominant White culture, he had to persecute surviving people who were less White than himself? I believe the historical reality was that he could. I doubt that anyone born after 1950 can really understand the race hysteria that gripped North America and Western Europe during the first half of the twentieth century, but we have to remember that otherwise intelligent people, otherwise of good will, really were sucked into it, and sometimes the ones who were themselves multiracial were the most thoroughly demented by it...e.g. black-haired, Slavic-looking, Slav-hating Adolf Hitler.
       
Next question: How “authentic” is the education of Little Tree as a Cherokee? Actually reading the book may help correct some people’s sentimentalism about Cherokee culture...because this book is not about pure, pristine, pre-Columbian Cherokee culture. It doesn't claim to be. According to Little Tree, his Granpa is half Scotch.  Granpa’s “whisky trade” and use of words like “kin” come straight from Scotland. Perhaps the folk cultures always were more compatible than some people think; geologists find evidence that Britain may once have been physically connected to the northern Appalachian Mountains, anthropologists remind us that the early Celts were shorter and darker than the Saxons and Vikings with whom they intermarried, and historians keep digging up evidence of occasional contact between Western Europeans and Eastern North Americans before Columbus’s time. In any case, although we’re convinced that Little Tree is deeply rooted in the Blue Ridge Mountains , upon close reading we also see that he is a hybrid tree. Granpa knows only a few words of Granma’s ancestral language (which probably was not Cherokee), and neither Granpa nor Little Tree knows exactly how Granma prepares her native-plant foods and remedies. The education of Little Tree is remarkably like the education of his Scottish-and-English-American contemporaries in Jesse Stuart’s Hie to the Hunters. Granpa’s understanding of frugality is presented in Cherokee terms...but many people in North Carolina use the word “Scotch” to mean “frugal.”
       
The bottom line is that, whatever else happens in his life, the boy learns a simple, sustainable, and enjoyable way of living in harmony with the land from three thoroughly lovable older people.
       
Does the story realistically show that this lifestyle, although idyllic, has certain limitations? Yes. The story is about the time in Little Tree’s life when a child loses his baby teeth, but all Little Tree says about this life passage is that watching how a local man extracts damaged adult teeth makes him wary. Reading between the lines, we notice how prematurely all the adults in Little Tree’s life seem to be dying. We notice also that, although Little Tree’s grandparents have worked out ways to live well on a low income, they are in fact dirt-poor. 
       
Does the story preach? Well...a little. Even in their time and place, Little Tree’s grandparents are not ordinary people. Their lifestyle is not a matter of plucking the lotus and dreaming about past incarnations. It involves hard work, thrift, generosity, loyalty, and fine character...and reverence. The grandparents aren’t fully convinced by any of the Christian dogmas inferior minds debate so hotly at their nondenominational church, but they take Little Tree to church just the same. And their compassion for the inferior human beings they meet at church is well tempered with awareness that these people are, by their own choices, inferior (another thing often observed in both Scotch and Cherokee culture).
       
Were there ever people like Little Tree and his grandparents? Yes. Some of them are related to me. Some of them are still alive. I enjoy their company very much, but some people tend to find them intimidating.
       
I recommend The Education of Little Tree to everyone. There is truth in it. I’m not sure exactly whose truth. I’m quite sure that Asa Carter didn’t know any of my elders, and the directions he gives from the place he calls Clinch Mountain in the book obviously don’t refer to the Clinch Mountain I know. (In fact, the mountains in the book are higher than the Clinch Mountain I know.) Nevertheless, the truth in this book is our truth as well as Carter’s. Of all popular books about the Appalachian Mountains (northern or southern), this is the one that resonates best with my elders’ stories and my memories, and the one I recommend that people read first.

But read it with your eyes open. If you want to learn the Cherokee language, study guides are available. Note that the words Little Tree's Granma uses are not the ones they use. Neither, according to Wikipedia, did Carter's surviving relatives know who, if anyone, Carter might have remembered as having been like Little Tree's Granma. Does this make the story false? Not necessarily. A lot of people in Virginia and North Carolina had dark tan complexions and poorly documented ancestry. The Granma character may be fiction but she reflects a fact...and that fact is that some of these people, having given up hope of being accepted as White, wanted to be perceived as associated with a living (and wealthy) Native American nation rather than as being the last survivor of a small, poor group or family.

Asa Carter has been dead for a long time, so we can't offer The Education of Little Tree as a Fair Trade Book. If you buy it online, we'll have to charge $5 for the book + $5 shipping anyway. If you buy it together with another book, or books, that we can ship in the same package, you pay only $5 for the whole package and can still buy a Fair Trade Book and support some other writer who is still alive.