Study Guide

The Learning Tree

by Gordon Parks Sr.

The Learning Tree Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.)

The Learning Tree Bibliography (Literary Essentials: African American 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.