The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Learning Tree is written in the third person, but the tale is related primarily through the eyes of Newt Winger. It is Newt’s life that readers experience, and it is through Newt that the world of Cherokee Flats comes alive. Gordon Parks, a famous photographer, has the literary ability to allow readers to “see” that world through his words. Newt is both typical and atypical. With his young friends Beansie, Jappy, Skunk, and Earl, he loves to hike, to hunt, to swim, and even to steal fruit from a local farmer’s peach trees.

Newt is more reflective than any of the other characters. Possibly this is because it is Newt’s story, told mainly through his experiences. Hunting, swimming, and even stealing peaches were part of many boys’ experiences in the small towns of early twentieth century America, but other aspects of Newt’s character are unique. One of his ambitions is to go to college, an unusual goal for an African American in the 1920’s. Chosen to make the graduation speech at his all-black grade school, Newt asserts that “We are proud to be black. . . . Our class does not expect life to be easy. We only expect it to be better, and we are determined to help make it so by contributing something to it ourselves.” It is not easy to be an African American in Cherokee Flats. Once, while Newt is selling brooms door to door with his blind uncle, who populates his unseen world with people of all different colors, a white boy...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Newton Buchanan Winger

Newton Buchanan Winger, the protagonist, a boy of twelve. He experiences momentous encounters of life, including death, violent and otherwise, and love, both sexual and familial. The youngest in a large, close-knit family, Newt grows both physically and emotionally. At the end, when he leaves the Midwest town of his birth for a new home in Minnesota, his mother’s dream of him going on to better things seemingly is fulfilled.

Sarah Winger

Sarah Winger, Newt’s mother, a housekeeper for a white judge. She is the keystone of the Winger family. Although increasingly suffering from the heart condition that eventually kills her, Sarah leads her family and is, for an African American in the 1920s, a respected person in town. Sarah’s hopes crystallize around Newt, who shows both intellectual ability and artistic promise.

Jack Winger

Jack Winger, Sarah’s husband and Newt’s father. He is hardworking and well-intentioned but does not always understand or sympathize with Newt’s interests or Sarah’s ambitions for Newt. A struggling farmer willing to do whatever work is necessary to keep his family together, Jack is an honorable figure in Cherokee Flats. He is well aware that Sarah is the dominant figure of their household.

Arcella Jefferson

Arcella Jefferson, Newt’s first love. Newt and Arcella fall in love, sit together in the...

(The entire section is 436 words.)