The Learning Tree relates two crucial years in the life of Newt Winger. It opens with a terrible tornado that causes death and destruction in the small Kansas town of Cherokee Flats and leads to Newt’s sexual awakening as he is comforted during the storm by Big Mabel. The novel concludes with the deaths of Newt’s mother, Sarah, and of Marcus Savage, whose last act before his own death is his attempt to murder Newt in revenge for Newt’s testimony against Marcus’s father.
Although death plays an ever-present role, The Learning Tree is also about growing up in small-town America in the early part of the twentieth century. Cherokee Flats, with a population of six thousand, is home to both African Americans and whites. Although African Americans cannot compete with whites in athletic events or eat in the same ice cream parlor, black and white children often play together. The high school is integrated, but the lower grades are not.
Some experiences transcend racial boundaries. The rural nature of Cherokee Flats gives Newt and his companions the opportunity to hunt, swim, and experience the joys and sorrows that befall all children. Like most mothers, Sarah encourages Newt’s academic pursuits. She dreams that he will eventually find a better life. She expresses her faith that the next generation of African Americans will make a new world for themselves, a world different from that of their parents. Sarah, a strongly religious woman, impresses upon Newt that good people and bad people come in all colors, and that all, regardless of color, have the possibility of experiencing redemption, even Marcus Savage, who was sentenced to reform school for beating up a local white farmer, and even Clint, her drunken son-in-law, who constantly threatens to kill his wife. Although Sarah hopes that Newt will eventually get away, she notes that the town is like a fruit tree, with good...
(The entire section is 781 words.)