What is the theme of The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks?

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dymatsuoka eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Some of the main themes explored in The Learning Tree include growing up and coming of age, death, and the African American experience.

The Learning Tree, which is largely autobiographical, recounts two critical years in the life of the main character, Newt Winger.  A small-town adolescent, Newt explores his world, hanging out with his friends, exploring love and sex, and dreaming of the future.  Newt aspires to go to college, and in order to reach his true potential, he finally realizes that he must escape the confines of his hometown of Cherokee Flats.

Death is another predominant theme in The Learning Tree.  Newt has experienced much of death in his young life, and he is afraid of it.  A number of characters in his immediate surroundings die in the story.  His mother Sarah dies after a long illness, and his father Jack is killed, after which his murderer commits suicide and the murderer's son dies while trying to elude the police.  Newt forces himself to face his fear of death, spending the night on the floor of the room which holds his mother's casket.  After he finally falls asleep, he discovers that death no longer holds the same terror for him as it did before.

A third important theme in the book is the African American experience.  In the limited environs of Cherokee Flats, it is the "white judge, the white policeman, and the white superintendent of schools" who hold the power.  The story takes place during the first half of the twentieth century, and Newt experiences racism everyday in his life, having to defer to the laws of Jim Crow.  He learns early that race does matter in the world, and that the people of his race are "not the best liked".

Read the study guide:
The Learning Tree

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