Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)
Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree begins in the winter of 1930, when Little Tree is orphaned at the age of five and goes to live with Granma and Granpa Wales in the mountains near Chattanooga, Tennessee. The chapters are largely episodic, with more emphasis on the daily lives of Granma, Granpa, and Little Tree than on narrative movement and action, though humor and excitement abound. The grandparents are depicted as loving and nurturing guardians who are sensitive to the needs of their five-year-old charge.
As the title promises, the focus of the book is on the education of Little Tree—his formal education and his introduction to “The Way” of the Cherokee. Although Granpa was illiterate, on winter evenings Granma read aloud such classics as William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (15991600) and Macbeth (16051606) and Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (17761788). In addition, each week Little Tree learned five new words from the dictionary, making up sentences with the words and working his way through the alphabet. Mr. Wine, a Jewish peddler, helped him with math. In these ways, his grandparents took great care with his formal education. More important, however, was his instruction in “The Way” of the Cherokee, which became the core of Little Tree’s schooling—Cherokee history, philosophy, and life.
Little Tree’s first year in the mountains...
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The reader begins to feel as if s/he knows the mountain trails, the seasons, the cabin, the Spring Branch, the tiny field of corn, and the hidden whiskey still, where Little Tree spends several years under the care of his grandparents. The area in the eastern Tennessee mountains that Little Tree learns to love and calls home is fundamental to his view of the world. With Granpa by his side, his eyes are opened to the beauty of a sunrise, the behavior of the birds and animals, and the sounds of his surroundings. Granpa teaches Little Tree to live with the land and take only what is necessary. Nature is the key backdrop to the story, and in many ways it is Mother Earth who is the central character and Little Tree's closest companion. Little Tree's grandmother tells him it is because he is born from nature:
Granma said very few was picked to have the total love of the trees, the birds, the waters—the rain and the wind. She said as long as I lived I could always come home to them, where other children would find their parents gone and would feel lonesome; but I wouldn't ever be.
The other geographic setting which is presented as a dichotomy to the mountains is the town or civilization itself. When Little Tree and Granpa hike down to the crossroads store to sell their homemade whiskey and attend Church, they enter the other world. In this world, Little Tree is introduced to how other people live and speak....
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The voice of Little Tree drives the story. Carter's use of first person narration gives the novel a personal, almost journalistic quality. As Little Tree recounts his experiences in an innocent child's voice, the reader is in essence experiencing the lessons first hand as he is invited to be a part of the education.
Because Nature plays such a vital role in defining The Education of Little Tree, Carter spends a good deal of time infusing his descriptions of the environment with detailed depictions of the natural habitat:
smells take on their own vibrancy, and little sounds and sights appear to Little Tree as he learns to still his body and adjust to nature's grasp. The forest becomes a place not just of wonder but a home. It is as much through Little Tree's dealings with his grandparents against the encroachment of government regulations as his lessons from allowing himself to meld into the natural landscape that Little Tree begins to grow into an adult. And it is the descriptions of the natural landscape that allow the reader to feel the change in Little Tree from a man against nature to a man with nature. In addition, Carter creates a life and thought process for the plants in the forest through Little Tree's imagination. Just as Granpa and Granma's belief in the spirit of all living things influences Little Tree's way of viewing the world, the anthropomorphization of the trees and flowers teaches Little Tree to respect Nature and...
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The Education of Little Tree spends a good deal of time reflecting on the question of man's place in the world. This cannot be separated from the issues of the history involving the Native Americans being forced off their land by the white man and being relocated to reservations. Little Tree is told of the Cherokee's past, their forced relocation in what was called "The Trail of Tears." It is through this history and Granpa and Granma's attempt to live in a world where Native Americans are denied certain civil rights and are forced to digest a religion that is not their own that Little Tree learns to distrust the government. Granpa's lack of faith in politicians is passed along to Little Tree, and justifiably so, considering the intrusion of the government workers on Granma and Granpa's property and lifestyle. Considering Native American history and Little Tree's segregation from the rest of society, the reader is asked what his place in the world should be.
Age versus youth is a topic that threads through the fabric of the tale. The book seems to debunk the idea that age always equals wisdom; rather, Little Tree becomes, even at a young age, wiser than many of the other characters in the book simply by stopping and listening to simple truths that either nature or other people teach him. He sees the mountains as vast and providing, and worthy of honor, rather than as a place to pillage and use to one's own advantage, with little or no thought to...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why do you feel it is necessary to find your place in the world? How do you think people discover their place?
2. Why does Granpa distrust politicians and the government? Why do some people today not agree with the government?
3. What do you think will happen to Little Tree in the future? How can he teach others?
4. How do you feel the Native Americans, such as the Cherokee, feel today in a much more modern world? Why is it important that they maintain their past traditions?
5. How do you think Forrest Carter portrays the Native American? Is he reinforcing a stereotype?
6. What do you learn from Little Tree's view of the world? How is his perspective different? Is it better? Is it worse?
7. Why does Willow John seem sad? What do you think his story is?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Research the history of the Cherokee Indians. How are their beliefs different from your own?
2. Why were Native Americans persecuted? Were they or are they misunderstood? Why?
3. What would it be like to live in the mountains? Research the history of Tennessee's mountains and mountain people.
4. Why might it be important to live in harmony with Nature? How is man treating the environment today?
5. How do you think Little Tree will adapt to the modern world?
6. What was life like during the 1930s and the Great Depression?
7. Research "The Trail of Tears." How do you think America would be today if we had shared knowledge and co-existed equally with the native people who were here before us?
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Paramount Pictures released a film version of The Education of Little Tree in 1997. Earl Richard Friedenberg adapted and directed the novel. The film starred Joseph Aston as Little Tree, James Cromwell as Granpa, and Tantoo Cardinal as Granma.
Readers interested in novels that depict the lives and history of Native Americans may also like Mountain Windsong: A Novel of the Trail of Tears, by Robert J. Conley (reissued 1995), which tells the story of Waguli and Oconeechee, a young Cherokee man and woman separated by the Trail of Tears. Joseph Bruchac's The Journal of Jesse Smoke, A Cherokee Boy, The Trail of Tears, 1938 (2001) is a sixteen-year-old Cherokee boy's record of the events leading up to the Trail of Tears, as well as the excruciating journey west. It is told in a diary-format novel that comes alive with details of everyday life and of Cherokee spirituality and world views.
On a similar theme of overcoming hardship and facing change, Valley of the Moon: The Diary of Maria Rosalia De Milagros, Sonoma Valley, Alta California, 1846, by Sherry Garland (2001), gives a fictionalized account of a young migrant farm worker. Maria Rosalia de Milagros, a thirteen-year-old orphan working on a California rancho in 1846, picks up a discarded diary in which she secretly records her thoughts and experiences. She writes about the hard work; the rare pleasures of church festivals; her coworkers and wealthy employers; and the...
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For Further Reference
Bruchac, Joseph. Review of The Education of Little Tree. Parabola, vol. 14, no. 2 (May 1989): 108-109, 112. Bruchac's review praises the novel as a compelling, lifegiving autobiography that addresses ba- sic human concerns in a compassionate and effective manner.
Carter, Dan T. "Southern History, American Fiction: The Secret Life of Southwestern Novelist Forrest Carter." In Rewriting the South: History and Fiction. Edited by Lothar Honnighausen and Valeria Gennaro Lerda. Transatlantic Perspectives, no. 3. Tubingen: Francke, 1993, pp. 286-304. This is an essay (within a larger collection on Southern history) that discusses the irony of Carter's political affiliations and his novel The Education of Little Tree.
Clayton, Lawrence. "Forrest Carter/Asa Carter and Politics." Western American Literature, vol. 21, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 19-26. Clayton discusses how Carter used his novel as a fruitful vehicle for his political criticism.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "'Authenticity,' or the Lesson of Little Tree." New York Times Book Review, vol. 24 (November 1991): 26. This article takes the stance that authorship is not important in the larger picture; that it is the book, and the story that emanates from that book, that matters. The book should stand separate from the personal life of the author.
Related Web Sites
Barra, Allen. "The Education of Little Fraud."...
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