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...
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