Although this book was at first identified as a true story and an authentic, if somewhat fictionalized, autobiography of Carter, its authenticity has come into question. In October, 1991, stories in The New York Times, Newsweek, and Time identified Forrest Carter as a pseudonym for Asa Earl Carter, a strong segregationist and a speech writer for George Wallace in the 1960’s who was supposedly affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. When this charge was first leveled at Carter in 1976, he denied that he was Asa Carter, but amid the 1991 accusations, his widow, India Carter, confirmed this identity but disavowed his connection with the Ku Klux Klan.
While critics called the autobiography a hoax, India Carter and Eleanor Freide, Carter’s editor, argued that the book is authentic, that Carter’s grandparents were indeed Cherokee, and that Carter merely took the same literary license that any autobiographer takes with details of his or her own life. Professor Dan T. Carter of Emory University, however, objected to these defenses and insisted that The Education of Little Tree is fiction, not autobiography.
This controversy aside, the book has enjoyed tremendous success (selling more than 600,000 copies) and was designated in 1991 as the American Booksellers Book of the Year. When the University of New Mexico Press reissued it in paperback in 1986, the book became a best-seller, even among Native Americans, many of whom have praised its authentic depiction of Native American culture. Rennard Strickland, a Cherokee and the director of the Center for the Study of American Indian Law and Policy at the University of Oklahoma, wrote in the introduction to the 1986 edition that “students of Native American life discovered the book to be as accurate as it was mystical and romantic.” In 1991, he still defended The Education of Little Tree as depicting accurately “the experiences of isolated pockets of Indians in the South.” Strickland also pointed to its theme of the “outsider” as one of its most attractive features, a theme that is certainly central to the body of young adult literature. Whether fiction or autobiography, The Education of Little Tree is the portrait of an endearing child who impresses readers of all ages with his naïve wisdom.