The Education of Little Tree
By Forrest Carter
The Education of Little Tree is a classic novel of startling compassion. For those who have never heard of the book, it is a stark depiction Little Tree, an orphaned Cherokee boy who is taken in my his grandparents who live high in the mountains of Arkansas and remain distrustful of the encroaching outside world. Little Tree's grandparents, along with a cast of interesting "mountain people" with names such as Willow John, Mr. Wine and Pine Billy take responsibility for raising Little Tree in a traditional mountain way. At once gorgeous in his simplicity and unnerving in its naivety, Little Tree embarks on an education where the world is his classroom and everyone is his teachers.
This is a classic novel in virtually every sense of the word. Both touching and heartbreaking, Forrest Carter has a great deal of empathy for his characters and their way of life. Furthermore, it depicts such a radically marginalized segment of the population that it, in essence, becomes a trail marker of sorts in cataloging a diminishing history. Carter has a way of getting to the heart of an often voiceless population which makes Carter's own story seem all the more baffling.
Forrest Carter was born Asa Earl Carter and spent a large portion of his political career as a speechwriter for former Alabama governor George Wallace, the staunchest proponent of continued segregation. Carter fought vehemently against Civil Rights via his own publication known as The Southerner and even founded the North Alabama Citizens Council, a group closely affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan and a paramilitary group known as the Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy.
Later in life when he wrote The Education of Little Tree and The Outlaw Josey Wales, Carter used the name Forrest (after Nathan Bedford Forrest, of course) and implied that he was not Asa Earl. What's more, he perpetrated that Little Tree was based on his own Cherokee upbringing and that the book was autobiographical.
How does one reconcile a man from his work? Is there repentance through art? I've been ruminating about these questions since I finished the novel and did a bit of research on Carter (at the insistence of the guy who leant me the book). Is Carter, knowing his background, allowed to have this sort of compassion without misgivings from the reader? Oprah Winfrey says no. The Education of Little Tree used to be on her reading list but was yanked because she couldn't reconcile his past with his later words. Fair enough, I suppose. Each is entitled to their opinion. But the problem for me is that the book is simply excellent, no matter where it came from. Does that count for anything? Let's put it another way: if it was announced that Adolf Hitler was, in fact, the author of all the original Dr. Suess books, would that change them?
On the one hand, The Education of Little Tree is perhaps the best novel I have ever read on growing up in a Native American household. It's a balanced depiction of life at its more simple and pleasurable and certainly doesn't give any credence to the sort of person Asa Earl Carter was (in fact there are several characters in the book that could be Asa Earl Carter and all of them are treated with the abject disdain they deserve). A classic is a classic is a classic. Many writers, including poet Ezra Pound, were pro-fascist in the 1930 and the legacy of their work has not suffered as such.
On the other hand, even in his repentance he took the name of America's most notorious white supremacist and one should be held accountable to their past, especially when their past has hurt so many. The Education of Little Tree does, all of a sudden, feel like profiting off the very people the author fought against his entire political career by pandering to their soft spot. If it turned out that Mark Twain was a rampant pedophile I think it would really alter the way people read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and would have an adverse effect on his legacy.
I'm still thinking on this. What do you think?