The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter

We sat down in the leaves, off the trail, just as the first sun touched the top of the mountain across the hollow. From his pocket, Granpa pulled out a sour biscuit and deer meat for me, and we watched the mountain while we ate. The sun hit the top like an explosion, sending showers of glitter and sparkle into the air. The sparkling of the icy trees hurt the eyes to look at, and it moved down the mountain like a wave as the sun backed the night shadow down and down. A crow scout sent three hard calls through the air, warning we were there.”

– The Education of Little Tree, by Forrest Carter

This book came up on some list or other of westerns, which is why I read it, intending it to be this month’s western reviews. But now that I have read it, I do not think it is a western, it is more an… Americana fable, with another story to go alongside the actual book.

The history behind The Education of Little Tree book is rather fascinating – I had no idea until I’d already added it to my roster of ‘western’ books to read this year, but it has attracted a lot of criticism due largely to the extremist political activities of the author and the falseness of the promotion campaign around the book. (It was and is still, sold as an “authentic memoir,” but it seems that it is in fact pretty much all fiction.) (And the author appears to have been a white supremacist and segregationist.)

Apparently only modestly successful when it was first published in 1976, The Education of Little Tree was republished in the early 1990s, at which time it made it on to a number of bestseller’s lists. It was also at this time that it was revealed to the public as a hoax. Despite this revelation, or perhaps because of it, a film adaption of the book was released in 1997 (I have not seen that film.) Another of the author’s books, The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales was a successful western novel and also made into a film. (Which I think I have seen but don’t remember.)

So, the author most probably practised despicable politics and lied about the book being a memoir, but there is clearly something about the author’s writing that people have liked and continue to like. I am someone who tries to judge a story on it’s own merits, so I decided I would go ahead and read this book, particularly as it remains highly rated by many people on sites such as GoodReads.

Set during the 1920s and 30s, the book very episodically tells stories about a young boy who loses his parents and is taken to live in the southeastern mountains of the Unites States by his grandparents, who try to follow and share a traditional sort of life as members of the Cherokee Nation. There are many “life lessons” imparted. Like this –

‘It is The Way,’ he said softly, ‘Take only what ye need. When ye take the deer, do not take the best. Take the smaller and slower and then the deer will grow stronger and always give you meat. Pa-koh, the panther, know and so must ye.’ And he laughed, ‘Only Ti-bi, the bee, stores more than he can use … and so he is robbed by the bear, and the coon … and the Cherokee. It is so with people who store and fat themselves with more than their share. They will have it taken from them. And there will be wars over it … and they will make long talks, trying to hold more than their share. They will say a flag stands for their right to do this … and men will die because of the words and the flag … but they will not change the rules of The Way.”

At first, as I was reading this book, for the first few chapters, I felt awkward. After awhile, I felt myself being swayed into a sort of charm that the book has, although it feels like a tainted charm. The little episodes can be sort of funny and sort of gentle and sort of… nice. Maybe I can see how you could enjoy reading this with your kids, I’d think, but then I’d come across an episode that was perhaps not entirely appropriate for kids… due to language and subject matter (sometimes the characters are a bit crude, and there is death and cruelty, particularly towards the end of the book.) I’m not sure, but I think the intended audience was largely a teenage or adult audience, despite the youth of the protagonist, especially as there is sometimes a sort of sly humour that slips in and out of the story. There were a few times, too, when it was just funny. I know some people may be deeply offended by my saying there’s anything good at all about this book because of the author, but I want to be honest, and I did laugh at loud at one fun segment.

I also think some of the “life lessons” shared, some of the morals expressed, are valid.

I think that it’s possible you could enjoy reading at least some of these chapters out loud to a kid at a rate of one a day or so. You can probably find better books to read out loud to a kid, though.

The Granpa is proud of his whiskey and his bootlegging and teaches his grandson this “trade” and while I understand the historic economic reasons for corn liquor in the south, I’m not sure this is something every parent would want their kid to be exposed to as heroic. It is a story without a lot of good to say for authority in it’s different guises, or for “the church,” or for “big city’ gangster” types, either. Mostly it celebrates a sort of down-home hillbilly kind of wisdom. With a dash of whisky makin’ and cussin.’

It is slow paced, and there was a stretch in the middle when I just about gave up, as the story gets quite repetitive and you begin to wonder if it’s going anywhere at all and it all starts to read as quite corny or sappy…

Apparently when it first came out it was seen as a book which championed environmentalism and I can understand that.

Clearly, we now have to question if anything about “The Cherokee Way” in this book is even remotely truthful. And there are passages which are a bit – well, there are characters who exhibit racism, there are a couple of places where racial slurs appear, and there are stereotypes, and a dog gets beaten to death, and there is child-whipping, too, and in one case it is not particularly condemned, and the reasons for that as presented within the text raised some philosophical challenges.

There is an episode when someone is bitten by a rattlesnake – which reminds me that the ye olde ‘suck the venom out’ first aid for snakebite is not how you’re supposed to react, even though it constantly appears in stories. The full ‘cure’ that they enact in this book for the venomous bite is, I have to say, all around, quite disgusting. I usually make notes as I read to review, and the note on this chapter simply said “Ew.”

A couple of the story episodes seem a bit mean. But the interesting thing is that the blatant racism is not lauded in any way within this story and there is considerable sympathy for the narrator when he is taken away to a residential school. The resolution of the story may have more to do with fairy tale and fable than with real life, but the book is all fable, so it fits. Some people have suggested that the author was trying to “atone” for his past behaviours when he wrote this book.

Sometimes the writing is just awkward. By the end, I had fallen under it’s awkward spell a little and felt a bit weepy as the book concludes. The ultimate question though, for me, leaving aside who the author was, is, Is This a Good Book? Is this a book I would recommend?

And I have to say no. There were times when I wanted to put it down and walk away. It’s an interesting book, because it was a hoax and a bestseller and it’s still loved by many, it’s interesting because it’s so awkward, but as a story itself, I have to say the awkwardness gets in the way, and here I mean the awkwardness of it’s writing and plotting – as well as the history behind it.

I also don’t think it’s a terrible book. I think there are some good story-bits in it. I don’t entirely condemn this book.

Granma and Granpa wanted me to know of the past, for ‘If ye don’t know the past, then ye will not have a future. If ye don’t know where your people have been, then ye won’t know where your people are going.

I give this awkward book 2.5 stars out of 5. I feel like it’s closer to 2 stars now in 2022 as we know about the hoax and the author but it may have been closer to a three star book when it first came out (or it may have earned three stars if I hadn’t read anything about it before reading the book.) So I’ve split the difference. It would be interesting to learn what someone who read it when they were younger than I am thought about it, particularly if they read it before learning about the controversy surrounding this novel. I believe it’s one of those books that’s been taught at some schools. It’s probably one of those books that we are no longer capable of reading in the way it would of been read and potentially enjoyed in the first years after it’s publication, for better or for worse.

I will be posting a review of The Texas Job by Reavis Z Wortham later this month as March’s western book review.

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