Themes and Characters
What is the relationship of man to nature? Are the two one and the same, or is man separate from nature, an observer, a consumer? The Education of Little Tree follows the character of a young boy, Little Tree, as he seeks personal answers to these questions. Through Little Tree's experiences and observations, the reader gains an appreciation for the indelible beauty of the earth—the soil, the leaves, the individuality of the bark upon the trees. Through this tactile understanding of the vitality of nature, and man's indebtedness to the fertility of the earth, the reader witnesses the possibilities of how man might live with nature— not as an observer but in partnership with the living land. There are no hard and fast lessons in the novel, yet an overall examination of the way humans live subtly emerges from Little Tree's informal education from his Cherokee grandparents.
Portraying the world through the eyes of a child allows Carter to shift the perspective away from the drudgery of adult life—bills, tending to the home, feeding the children— and focus on an exploration of the environment without ingrained expectations. Carter begins the novel with the death of Little Tree's parents. While Little Tree's relatives "raised some mortal fuss" about what should be done with him, he latched onto his Granpa's leg, and thus his grandparents ended up taking him home with them. Home is a log cabin with a wide hall running through it, and it is here, set back against the mountains, that Little Tree begins his education, not one so much about reading and writing but one about a holistic approach to living on the land. The book follows Little Tree as he at first tries to impress and please his grandparents but eventually learns that the best lessons come from listening to his own heart, and to learning to always try to give as much to the land as one takes. His lessons are subtle and lasting.
For instance, Granpa teaches Little Tree of the importance of feeling self-worth by showing him how he treated his hound dogs. Since ol' Maud was not a good tracker, Granpa gave her the job of guarding the family's corn patch.
"Like Granpa said, ol' Maud had no smell sense atall and was practical worthless on the fox trail; but she had keen hearing and eyesight, and this gave her something she could do and take in knowing she was of worth. Granpa said if a hound or anybody else has got no feeling of worth, the it's a bad thing."
This idea of connection to one's place and one's people is further taught through the emphasis on family ties. The way that Granpa and Granma care for each other strengthens Little Tree's desire to understand his relationships with other people. "Granma said you couldn't love something you didn't understand; nor could you love people, nor God, if you didn't understand the people and God."
Little Tree learns a great deal about his past and the story of the Cherokee people. Awareness of the history of the Native American and their losses are vital to Little Tree's curriculum. He learns that he, and his people, cannot possibly have a future without knowing about the past. Several peripheral characters whom Little Tree encounters during his years living with Granpa and Granma emphasize the unbreakable connection between the past and the future.
Willow John is an old Cherokee friend of Granpa and Granma's who Little Tree is introduced to on their Sunday trips to Church. Willow John represents the old ways of the Native American before the white man forced them off their land. Willow John, who is isolated and living in the past of another generation learns from Little Tree that there can be hope in humanity. It is within Little Tree that Willow John sees the spirit of a new generation of those who respect and honor Nature and are learning their place in the world.
Another character who helps educate Little Tree is an old peddler named Mr. Wine who moves through the mountains. Mr. Wine teaches Little Tree the importance of studying...
(The entire section is 1,159 words.)