Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3931
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 ...
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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 asks him how much cotton he can pick. When he tells her he has never picked cotton, she says she “figgered that” because everyone knows Indians are lazy and will not work. The boy takes back his candy but relents when she says she figures it is not his fault; it is just the way Indians are made.
He tells Granma about the girl, and she makes her a pair of moccasins out of the calf hide she bought from Little Tree. The next month he gives her the moccasins. The girl is proud of her new shoes and skips down the road next to her father. A little way down the road, the father stops and looks at the girl; she points back at the boy. The man cuts a switch from a bush at the side of the road and whips her hard on her legs and back. Everyone in town watches as the girl cries but does not make a sound. The man picks up the moccasins and angrily pokes them at Little Tree, growling that they take no charity—and especially not from heathen savages. Granpa explains that the man does not want his child to grow accustomed to nice things because he is not able to provide them. Neither the man nor his daughter ever comes to the store again.
In the spring, Little Tree and Granma gather acorns, Indian violets, dandelions, mustard, and fireweed. Granpa gets a “kind of mixed-up feeling” every spring. Something new is being born, which is exciting, but it will pass quickly, which is sad. The berries ripen and the birds become active and Granpa quits trapping. He says animals cannot mate and defend themselves and raise their young at the same time; he leaves them alone so he will have animals to hunt next season. Instead, Granpa and Little Tree fish in the spring.
The boy learns to hand fish. He has just caught a catfish and is headed down the bank when he hears a dry, rustling sound right next to him. It is a rattlesnake. Granpa had been sleeping on the bank, but suddenly he is there and calmly telling the boy not to move. As the snake rises to strike, Granpa’s huge hand comes between Little Tree’s face and the snake, and it stays strong and steady as the rattler strikes, fast and hard. The rattler’s jaws take up his entire hand, and its fangs are buried deep into his hand. With his other hand, Granpa grabs the snake behind the head and squeezes. They celebrate for a moment, and then Granpa falls onto the ground. Little Tree runs to fetch Granma, and she spends the next hours fighting for her husband’s life every way she knows how. By dawn the next day, Granpa is breathing normally again and skins the snake to make a belt for Little Tree. The boy figures that, next to Granma, Granpa kins him more than anyone else in the world.
Little Tree “thinks Indian” like Granpa. They give themselves to nature not to subdue it or pervert it but to live with it. They give gifts without any expectation of something in return. They hold their hands up to show their peaceful intentions but are mocked for showing that they carry no weapons. Their word is a solemn, unbreakable oath.
Two men come to the house, one in a lavender suit and one in a white suit. They are from the city, and they offer Little Tree a dollar to take them to his grandpa. The boy knows they can afford to lose a dollar, so he leads them on a trail fraught with danger—and nowhere near Granpa or his still. Eventually the men make their own way down the mountain, and Granpa appears with some food and hears the entire story. As night falls, they hear the men thrashing around in a tangle of brush, shooting their pistols. Granpa and Little Tree sleep soundly and peacefully and plan to rescue the men in the morning.
Dawn arrives and Granpa sends Little Tree home to have Granma fix them some food. She is to put their food in a paper sack and some food for the two city fellows in a tow sack. As Granma cooks, the boy tells her all about these two men and the insults they hurled. Granma begins to add certain roots and powders to the fish she is boiling for the men. When Little Tree returns, he finds Granpa has helped the men out of the thicket by hollering so they can follow his voice. He leaves their food on the trail where they cannot miss it, and the two of them sit and eat their own meal while they wait.
The city men are a mess: shirts torn, blotchy from poison ivy, and dirty. They gobble down their food, but soon they are in trouble. Their stomachs are cramping and they rush to the bushes as they undo their pants and squat. For almost an hour they are indisposed. Little Tree says he thinks they are squatting in poison ivy; Granpa says he thinks so, too. The boy says he thinks they are wiping with poison ivy leaves; Granpa says he thinks so, too. Finally Granpa and Little Tree go home and wait for the men to come by on their way down the mountain. The disheveled men walk a wide circle around the cabin, cursing one another as they leave. Little Tree says he thought the men wanted to talk to Granpa; Granpa says he thinks they must have changed their minds about asking him to make whiskey for them.
The planting is completed and summer arrives. Little Tree turns six during the summer, and Granma intensifies his vocabulary work. Pine Billy comes to visit and tells them about “the wars and rumors of war” across the plains. They go to church every Sunday, and there they meet Willow John. He is a full-blooded Cherokee, older but taller than Granpa. He has sad eyes, for he walked the Trail of Tears and knows there is no more Nation. They are always the last to enter the church, and they sit in the back row. Willow John does not remove his hat; later Little Tree figures that the old man can no longer fight, so he wears his hat.
One Sunday Little Tree finds a long deer knife on his seat. That is how Indians give gifts: they leave them when they are deserved, so there is no thanking involved. The boy in return places a giant bullfrog and a nickel in Willow John’s pocket. During a silent moment in church, the frog croaks, and Willow John smiles. The smile turns to a laugh, and he laughs so hard he is soon crying—and he continues crying for a long time. He has much for which to weep. Ever after, Willow John has a twinkle in his eyes when he sees the boy. None of them pay much attention to the teachings of the church, but they still attend regularly.
Mr. Wine (short for a much longer name) is a back peddler who visits once a month. He is an old Jewish man who brings treats in his pockets and repairs clocks at their table. Mr. Wine teaches Little Tree how to tell time and sharpen a pencil without being wasteful. He gives the boy a figuring book and takes pictures of them with his Kodak picture box. Summer is ending, and Mr. Wine makes his last trip, though they do not know it then. He has a coat he made for the Little Tree, and that night he says prayers of thankfulness for a young boy who has brought him so much joy. Little Tree forgets to thank Mr. Wine for the coat as he is leaving. Fall comes early, but Mr. Wine does not come. Two city people in suits come, though, and they talk seriously with Granma and Granpa about a paper some people have filed with the law.
Their paper says Granma is an Indian and Granpa is a half-breed and that they are damaging the young boy in their care. They must go to court and give answer to the paper or Little Tree must go to an orphanage. Granpa is visibly upset, and Little Tree promises to do better, to learn more words, to read more, to do whatever he can. After the visitors leave, the old couple is distraught and figures maybe they are not doing right by their young grandson. Granpa decides to go see Mr. Wine, who lives above the feed store. No one answers his knock, but a man at the counter downstairs asks if he is Wales. When Granpa says he is, the man brings out a full tote sack with Granpa’s name on it. Mr. Wine is dead, but he left everything in order—even a note about where to send his body and the money to send it. Granpa slings the tote sack over his shoulder and asks for the town lawyer. The lawyer is sympathetic, but he tells Granpa that he will not win this case.
At home, they open the tote sack and are moved by the gifts Mr. Wine left them. They have three days before Little Tree must go to the orphanage, and they spend it “living hard.” Little Tree slips into town and buys gifts for his grandparents. Granpa cuts the boy’s hair so he will fit in better. He will leave his moccasins and deerskin shirt behind, since he plans to be back soon. Granma tells him to look at the Dog Star every night at dusk, no matter where he is, and he will know they are looking at it, too. Granpa takes the boy to the bus station, and a woman meets them. She puts a tag around Little Tree’s neck then puts him on the bus. When Little Tree looks out of the window, his grandfather looks dejected and old.
The orphanage is a religious institution, and the Reverend makes it clear that Little Tree was born in sin (and an Indian besides) and has no chance for redemption. Each evening Little Tree skips dinner and chapel to watch the Dog Star. He remembers the times he shared with his grandparents. Little Tree gets whipped until he bleeds for telling the truth in class, and each night after that he tells the Dog Star he wants to go home. On Christmas Day, Little Tree sees Granpa outside the orphanage; he has come to check on the boy. Neither can bear it, and Granpa takes Little Tree home with him on the bus. They are giddy with laughter on the walk home, and the dogs smother the boy, licking him all over, as they approach the cabin. His homecoming with Granma is joyous as well. He spends some time in his secret place, and his “spirit didn’t hurt anymore.” Granma sees the scars from the beating, and Granpa vows no one will ever take the boy again. Granpa had to go sign papers at the orphanage. The Reverend has given up on the boy after being followed for two days by a tall savage who eventually comes into his office and says the boy must go home. It was Willow John.
It is a hard winter, but they weather it well. Spring and summer follow, and Little Tree turns seven. He and Granpa feel they must visit Willow John, and they discover he is dying. They stay with him as he passes. Little Tree cries, but Granpa tells him Willow John will be back. They will “feel him in the wind.” They never go to church again.
Granma and Granpa and Little Tree have two more years together, and they “lived it full.” One day Granpa falls, and he never recovers. Granma has him buried up on the mountain in his secret place. The hounds mourn their loss. After that, Granma pushes the boy on learning. Ol’ Rippit dies, followed by ol’ Maud. Just before spring, Little Tree approaches the cabin and sees Granma in her rocker on the porch; he knows she is gone. She has left him a note telling him they will wait for him. He and Pine Billy bury her next to Granpa.
In the spring, Little Tree buries the still so no one can use it to make bad whiskey. He and the two dogs, Little Red and Blue Boy, head west to the Nations. He works when he can and continues his journey west. Little Red dies in the Ozarks, and when they arrive at the Nations they discover there is no Nation. Blue Boy is dying, and Little Tree takes him to the mountains, where he will “have no trouble at all catching up with Granpa.”