Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Gordon Parks, born in Fort Scott, Kansas, was one of the twentieth century’s true Renaissance men. He was not only a novelist and writer but also a photographer, filmmaker, and musical composer. Born in 1912, Parks would have been about Newt’s age at the time at which the novel is set. Parks’s mother died when he was sixteen, and he moved to Minnesota. The Learning Tree is thus broadly autobiographical.

One major theme in the novel is that of the adolescent boy discovering his world, dreaming his dreams, playing with friends, and exploring love and sex. Newt’s story is very much in a long tradition of American fiction featuring small-town boys and the joys and pains of growing up. Parks treats that boy’s world with obvious nostalgia. It was his own life he was recapitulating, and there were many idyllic moments.

The theme of death is also at the heart of the novel. It is sometimes said that adolescents believe themselves to be immortal, but this was not true of Newt. He experienced death, and feared it. The tornado that opens the novel causes the death of a neighbor. Later, Newt is traumatized when forced to view a dead body in the local mortuary. A number of the characters die in the course of the story. Big Mabel, Newt’s first sexual partner, dies in an auto accident, Jake Kiner is murdered by Booker Savage, Booker commits suicide, and Booker’s son Marcus falls down a cliff attempting to escape from the police. Sarah’s long decline lay like a shadow over Newt and the rest of the Winger family. It is only after Sarah’s death that Newt is able to escape his fears. The night before Sarah’s burial, Newt...

(The entire section is 675 words.)