Forrest Carter is best known for writing The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, but The Education of Little Tree, an autobiographical account of growing up in the hills with his Cherokee grandparents, is often considered his best work. Set in the 1930s Depression era, The Education of Little Tree speaks to the universal experience of growing up in a sometimes hostile world. It was published in 1977 and received the Abby Award in 1991. This book has received much criticism for not being factually accurate; however, it is based on real people and experiences. Forrest Carter died in 1979.
Forrest’s parents are both gone by the time he is five years old, which is how he comes to live with his grandparents. The rest of the family makes a fuss, but the young boy finds his tall, half-Cherokee grandfather in the crowd at the funeral and will not let go of his leg. Granpa and Granma (a full-blooded Cherokee) take him home despite family objections. They ride the bus (amid mocking) to the base of the mountain and have to walk the rest of the way. Granpa slows his stride so the boy can keep up, and Granma hums a comforting Indian song so the boy feels safe. Ol’ Maud, a baying hound who has no sense of smell, greets them along with a pack of other dogs. The cabin is warm and comfortable. As Forrest prepares to sleep, Granma sings him an Indian song in which all living things welcome Little Tree to his new home. The boy knows he is Little Tree and he is loved and wanted. He sleeps and does not cry.
It takes Granma a week of evenings to make his boot moccasins, and he puts them on this morning along with his overalls, for Granpa said he could go with him to the high trail if he got up on his own. Granpa did talk unusually loud and bump hard against his wall, but the boy is sure he would have woken up anyway. The journey is pleasant and Little Tree feels the earth beneath him like a living thing. When they reach the turkey run, he helps Granpa prepare the trap, and then they sit and wait. Granpa says the land is coming alive. Little Tree agrees; he knows he and his grandfather have an understanding that most folks do not have. As they wait, a hawk descends and kills a quail. Granpa explains that is “The Way.” It is all part of the life cycle, and each is to take only what he needs. Never take the best. When six turkeys are caught in the trap, Little Tree is told to choose three. He crawls among them and chooses the three smallest. He carries one of them home slung over his shoulder.
Coal oil is scarce, but every Saturday and Sunday night that winter they light the lamp. Little Tree has to learn five words from the dictionary each week, and Granma reads from the books Granpa got from the library in town—classic works by Shakespeare and Byron. The other evenings they talk about what Granma has read. Granpa blames Lady Macbeth for all the killings, and he takes the side of Julius Caesar because the others are the “low-downdest bunch” he has ever heard of, sneaking up on their friend and stabbing him to death. Granpa admires George Washington—until Granma slips and reads that he wanted to impose a whiskey tax. As a mountain man, Granpa has a healthy distrust of politicians who want to take away his livelihood; however, he explains his hero’s lapse in judgment by suggesting he must have gotten an injury in the war.
Late one afternoon Granpa puts the oldest dogs in the house and takes the rest on a fox chase. This is not a hunt; Granpa does not need or use dogs to help him hunt. Today they are going to let the dogs run as they chase the fox named ol’ Slick. As they watch, Granpa shows Little Tree how the fox uses the dogs’ feelings to contradict their sense; he sees this often in men as well.
Little Tree learns much from his grandparents. Each night Granpa says, “I kin ye, Bonnie Bee,” and Granma often asks, “Do ye kin me, Wales?” This means they understand, and to them understanding and loving are the same thing, for it is impossible to love people or God without understanding them. “Kinfolks” used to mean “loved ones,” but people have gotten mean and now it refers to any relatives. Granpa tells the story of an old family friend, Coon Jack. Coon Jack is a cantankerous man, always picking a fight and looking for trouble. Granpa’s pa explained that Coon Jack is a man who had everything taken from him, first by the government, then the war. He fought and lost everything, so he holds on to what he has with everything he has. After he heard that, Granpa loved Coon Jack no matter what he did, for he understood him. Granpa says that is “kin.”
Little Tree’s grandparents teach him about the past because knowing the past helps one know where he is going. They tell him about the Cherokee way of life, about the government soldiers who came and deceived them, about how the Cherokee died as they were forced to move farther from their land, about the Trail of Tears, about the soul of the Cherokee which did not die. Some Cherokee did not go; instead, they fled into the mountains. These were Granpa’s people.
In the winter, Little Tree and his grandparents do the necessary chores and tasks to prepare the soil for planting in the spring, but they never work so long or so hard that it gets tedious. Granma collects herbs for her remedies, and the two men gather nuts of all kinds as they enjoy the creation around them. Some days they hitch up the mule and plow leaves and pine needles into the corn patch, and the boy is beginning to feel as if he is doing a man’s job. One night Pine Billy comes to visit. He is an old friend. He brings sweet potatoes and dreams of being rich. Later Granpa gets out his stone jug, Granma gets out her cough syrup, Pine Billy plays his fiddle and sings, and Little Tree falls asleep on the floor, listening to the music and dreaming.
Along the marshes near the spring, Little Tree finds all kind of life, and he brings some of his favorites, musk bugs, to Granma because she loves sweet smells. Neither grandparent had ever seen a musk bug, and they are impressed with their grandson. Granma tells him he did the right thing:
[W]hen you come on something that is good, first thing to do is share it with whoever you can find; that way, the good spreads out to no telling where it will go. Which is right.
Little Tree spends a lot of time at the spring; one day he follows it and discovers a secret place. The only one he ever takes there is ol’ Maud, and she does not tell; however, he does tell Granma. She says all Cherokees have a secret place. She explains to Little Tree that each person has a “body-mind” and a “spirit-mind,” and from his secret place he can see how it works as he watches nature and the seasons.
Granpa is seventy-plus years old, and he has never had a “public works” job. (To mountain people, this means any job that pays for hire.) Granpa has a trade: he is a whiskey maker. In 1930, a bushel of corn sells for twenty-five cents—if anyone will buy it. Granpa adds no sugar to his product, nor does he try to dangerously speed up the process like so many “city” whiskey makers. Granpa’s product is straight, pure whiskey. Because this is the only trade Granpa knows, he figures he should teach it to Little Tree. Granpa’s little still is made of pure copper and is hidden in the brush on the mountain. He makes a whiskey run to town once a month and sells nine of his eleven gallons (his “wares”) to the store at two dollars a gallon; the other two Granpa keeps at home. The money is wrapped in a sack and stuffed in a fruit jar. When Granpa is working at the still, the dogs are shut in the house; if anyone unexpected arrives, Granma will release Blue Boy as a warning. Little Tree works hard as part owner of the still. One winter Blue Boy comes to them at the still. Granpa stays to cover the still and the boy totes a sack with whiskey jars packed in with leaves and is to stay out of sight down the trail. Instead, he meets four men with badges. Little Tree runs; Blue Boy stays and fights. The men do not find the still, which makes his grandparents proud.
Little Tree enjoys delivering their wares to the store; he carries his earnings proudly in his pocket, though he never spends the money. On this day a politician comes to town and gives a speech about the horrifying conditions in Washington. At the edge of the crowd is a man with a calf. When Little Tree pets it, the man compliments the boy on his way with animals and asks if he has any money. When Little Tree tells him he has fifty cents, the man says he will let the boy have his calf for that amount. Little Tree buys the calf, but it dies on the way home. Granpa checks its liver and finds it is diseased; he skins the calf and Granma gives Little Tree a dime for the skin. Little Tree learns to be less trusting of men who call themselves Christians.
Interesting things happen when Granpa and Little Tree are in town. Sometimes they watch Old Man Barnett “jump a tooth” (pull a tooth) out behind the barn. They hear the news of shootings and window jumpings from New York because people are now poor. They also see sharecroppers, and Little Tree gets acquainted with a little girl. Her parents are sharecroppers, forced to have many children to eke out a living on their “borrowed” land. The little girl is barefoot even in winter, has tangled-up hair, and her teeth are rotten. She wears a tow sack for a dress. Little Tree sometimes lets her lick on his peppermint stick. One day she...
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