Study Guide

The Learning Tree

by Gordon Parks Sr.

The Learning Tree Characters

Characters Discussed (Great Characters in Literature)

Newton Buchanan Winger

Newton Buchanan Winger, the protagonist, a boy of twelve. He experiences momentous encounters of life, including death, violent and otherwise, and love, both sexual and familial. The youngest in a large, close-knit family, Newt grows both physically and emotionally. At the end, when he leaves the Midwest town of his birth for a new home in Minnesota, his mother’s dream of him going on to better things seemingly is fulfilled.

Sarah Winger

Sarah Winger, Newt’s mother, a housekeeper for a white judge. She is the keystone of the Winger family. Although increasingly suffering from the heart condition that eventually kills her, Sarah leads her family and is, for an African American in the 1920s, a respected person in town. Sarah’s hopes crystallize around Newt, who shows both intellectual ability and artistic promise.

Jack Winger

Jack Winger, Sarah’s husband and Newt’s father. He is hardworking and well-intentioned but does not always understand or sympathize with Newt’s interests or Sarah’s ambitions for Newt. A struggling farmer willing to do whatever work is necessary to keep his family together, Jack is an honorable figure in Cherokee Flats. He is well aware that Sarah is the dominant figure of their household.

Arcella Jefferson

Arcella Jefferson, Newt’s first love. Newt and Arcella fall in love, sit together in the...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

The Learning Tree Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Balliett, Whitney. Review of The Learning Tree, by Gordon Parks. The New Yorker 39 (November 2, 1963): 209. Calling Parks’s novel an old-fashioned melodrama, Balliett wishes that it had focused more on the Wingers’ home life rather than on the violent incidents that too often confronted young Newt.

Dempsey, David. “Witness to a Killing.” The New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1963, 4. Dempsey’s review of The Learning Tree was the most negative of the major reviews. His comments reflect the militant idealism of the Civil Rights movement, and he implies that art should serve politics. Parks was found lacking in this respect.

Hentoff, Nat. “‘Sorta Like Fruit.’” New York Herald Tribune, August 25, 1963, p. 6. Hentoff believed that boys would get more from the novel than would adults. He urged that The Learning Tree be placed on high-school reading lists, claiming that white children could learn much from Newt Winger’s story and that black youths could identify with it more than with some other required literary works.

Moore, Deedee. “Shooting Straight: The Many Worlds of Gordon Parks.” Smithson-ian 20 (April, 1989): 66-77. A general article about Parks and his many accomplishments, written shortly after Parks was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Ronald Reagan, an award that suggests the magnitude of the changes that took place during Parks’s lifetime.

Yoder, Edwin M., Jr. “No Catch for the Hawk.” Saturday Review 49 (February 12, 1966): 40. Yoder favorably reviews Parks’s A Choice of Weapons (1966). Not disguised as fiction, this work tells of the barriers Parks faced after leaving Kansas. The reviewer called it an excellent introduction to what it meant to be black, poor, and ambitious in the years between the two world wars.