Form and Content
Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree begins in the winter of 1930, when Little Tree is orphaned at the age of five and goes to live with Granma and Granpa Wales in the mountains near Chattanooga, Tennessee. The chapters are largely episodic, with more emphasis on the daily lives of Granma, Granpa, and Little Tree than on narrative movement and action, though humor and excitement abound. The grandparents are depicted as loving and nurturing guardians who are sensitive to the needs of their five-year-old charge.
As the title promises, the focus of the book is on the education of Little Tree—his formal education and his introduction to “The Way” of the Cherokee. Although Granpa was illiterate, on winter evenings Granma read aloud such classics as William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (15991600) and Macbeth (16051606) and Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (17761788). In addition, each week Little Tree learned five new words from the dictionary, making up sentences with the words and working his way through the alphabet. Mr. Wine, a Jewish peddler, helped him with math. In these ways, his grandparents took great care with his formal education. More important, however, was his instruction in “The Way” of the Cherokee, which became the core of Little Tree’s schooling—Cherokee history, philosophy, and life.
Little Tree’s first year in the mountains with Granma and Granpa was secure and idyllic, but his utopia was disrupted when the outside world intruded. The most critical intrusion was when a man and a woman, whom Little Tree identifies as “politicians,” accused Granma and Granpa of being unfit guardians and of neglecting Little Tree’s formal education. Because Granpa had a criminal record for making moonshine, he had no recourse but to give up Little Tree to a “denominational” orphanage, where he was cast as a heathen and a bastard. Little Tree adjusted as well as he could, but when he was brutally beaten by the Reverend, the head of the orphanage, he sent a message through the trees and the wind that he wanted to go home. On Christmas Day, Granpa appeared and took him back to the mountains. Through Willow John’s intervention, the orphanage released Little Tree back to his grandparents’ care, a move that represents his permanent rejection of the outside world in favor of the Cherokee way.
The book ends with the natural deaths of all the older characters—Willow John, Mr. Wine, and Granma and Granpa Wales—including the hound dogs. Although the book addresses only four years in Little Tree’s life and he is technically nine years old at the end, the chronology is vague; he seems much older when he leaves the mountains for Oklahoma and the Cherokee nation.
The reader begins to feel as if s/he knows the mountain trails, the seasons, the cabin, the Spring Branch, the tiny field of corn, and the hidden whiskey still, where Little Tree spends several years under the care of his grandparents. The area in the eastern Tennessee mountains that Little Tree learns to love and calls home is fundamental to his view of the world. With Granpa by his side, his eyes are opened to the beauty of a sunrise, the behavior of the birds and animals, and the sounds of his surroundings. Granpa teaches Little Tree to live with the land and take only what is necessary. Nature is the key backdrop to the story, and in many ways it is Mother Earth who is the central character and Little Tree's closest companion. Little Tree's grandmother tells him it is because he is born from nature:
Granma said very few was picked to have the total love of the trees, the birds, the waters—the rain and the wind. She said as long as I lived I could always come home to them, where other children would find their parents gone and would feel lonesome; but I wouldn't ever be.
The other geographic setting which is presented as a dichotomy to the mountains is the town or civilization itself. When Little Tree and...
(The entire section is 2,306 words.)