The Education of Little Tree

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The Education of Little Tree : A Book Review by Tab Olsen

The Education of Little TreeDescription: Forrest Carter, from the age of four or five, was inseparable from his part-Cherokee grandfather, who owned a farm and ran a country store nearby. Granpa called him Little Sprout; when he grew taller, he became Little Tree. From Granpa he absorbed the Cherokee ethic; to give love without expecting gratitude, to take from the land only what you need. Little Tree watches a mountain storm when Nature is birthing Spring, learns bird signs and wind songs and which crops to plant by the dark of the moon. He hears the true story of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, and why it is not the Indian who wept, but the watching white man. From a Jewish peddler who came every season to Granpa’s store he learns a lesson in charity; from a sharecropper he learns to understand misplaced pride. He escapes death through Granpa’s courage and confronts, for the first time, the hypocrisy and brutality of white Americans. Much of the lore passed from generation to generation by word of mouth is found in these stories in “The Education of Little Tree.”

Why I’ve never heard of this book until now I’ll never know. The Education of Little Tree is one of those literary masterpieces that should be on the required reading list for all high school students. This novel by Forrest Carter is comparable to famous titles by Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, Wilson Rawls, and Jack London. It’s a moving tale of family love and respect for all things in nature, as well as a primer in libertarian free market self sufficiency. It has history and real life lessons that can apply to everyone, while providing a glimpse into Indian culture. The book is a beautifully written depiction of a boy’s life, complete with some hilarious vignettes and poignant scenes, as it shares the love that a little boy has for his grandparents and for his heritage. This book shows that an education in life itself is an education that no school could ever compete with. Read it and see why home and family provide the best learning environment.

Historical Background

The Education of Little Tree was originally going to be called Me and Grandpa, according to the introduction. The story centers on a young child’s relationship with his Scottish-Cherokee grandfather, a man named Wales (an overlap with Carter’s 1973 novel The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales). The setting of the story is the Southern Appalachian Mountains, and it describes a lifestyle which no longer exists, so it’s a good read for anyone interested in social history. The book offers a very detailed look at Indian life in northern Alabama at that particular time period. This was the time when the Great Depression had wracked the nation, and poverty and despair were the order of the day. But such difficult times brought out the independent, fighting spirit of self-reliant people who worked hard to eke out a life for themselves in the wilderness.

The book was originally published in 1977 under the title and subtitle The Education of Little Tree: A True Story. However, it was later revealed that the book was only loosely based on the author’s experiences as a young child. So it’s more of a fictionalized memoir than a true story. The tale of Little Tree begins in the late 1920s when, at the age of five years, his parents die and he is placed in the care of his Cherokee grandparents. Little Tree will be forever influenced by his Indian grandma and grandpa, as he learns the wisdom of the Cherokee way of life from them. Even though the book is not purely autobiographical, Carter did indeed have Cherokee ancestry on his maternal grandparents’ side. Granma is based on family memories of Carter’s great-great-great grandmother (Granpa’s great-grandmother), who was a full Cherokee, combined with the author’s own mother, who read Shakespeare to him when he was a child.

The Story

In The Education of Little Tree, Little Tree is taught by his grandparents in a log cabin in a remote mountain hollow. It is here, set back against the mountains, where Little Tree begins his education, not just reading and writing but also learning about a holistic approach to living on the land—to always try to give as much back to the land as one takes. The book follows Little Tree as he at tries to impress and please his grandparents but eventually learns that the best lessons come from listening to his own heart.

With gentle guidance and encouragement, Little Tree’s grandparents give him an education that is both practical for his life situation but also important to his future. They have Little Tree learn new vocabulary by using the dictionary and they share with him the joy of reading. Little Tree has to learn five words from the dictionary each week, and Granma reads from the books that Granpa got from the library in town—including classic literature by Shakespeare and Byron. In addition to book learning, a strong work ethic is taught by the grandparents as they struggle to make a living.

Granpa teaches Little Tree how to hunt and survive in the mountains. Granma collects herbs for her remedies, and they gather nuts of all kinds. In the winter, Little Tree and his grandparents do the necessary chores and tasks to prepare the soil for planting corn in the spring. They are in tune with nature and the seasons, as they enjoy the creation around them. Through Little Tree’s experiences and observations, the reader gains an appreciation for the down-to-earth beauty of the soil, the leaves, the bark upon the trees. All the while, Little Tree learns about the importance of respect for the land.

Little Tree’s grandparents also teach him about the past, because the past and the future are connected. With the help of his grandparents’ old friend Willow John, Little Tree learns about the Cherokee tribe and its history. He hears about the Cherokee way of life, how the white settlers first befriended them, and then how government soldiers came and deceived them. He learns about the Trail of Tears, how many Cherokee died as they were forced to move far away from their land, and yet the soul of the Cherokee did not die. Some Cherokee fled into the mountains—these were Granpa’s people. As a mountain man and Confederate sympathizer who runs a small moonshine operation during Prohibition, Granpa has a deep distrust of politicians and “guv’mint.”

When the state’s social services finds out that Little Tree is not attending school and is assisting his grandfather in selling liquor, they re-locate him to an oppressive Indian boarding school, where he stays for a few months. There, this innocent, well loved Indian boy experiences the prejudice and ignorance of the school’s caretakers toward Indians and their lifestyle, as they attempt to assimilate him into white man’s culture.  Little Tree is rescued when Willow John notices his unhappiness and demands that Little Tree be withdrawn from the school. The book ends just before the Great Depression with Little Tree’s coming of age as he moves on with his life, always remembering “The Way” which his grandparents instilled into his soul.

Author Controversy

Believe it or not, The Education of Little Tree has been the subject of much controversy and a number of scholarly articles, many focusing on the true identity of the author and how it impacted his work. Forrest Carter was actually a pseudonym for Asa Earl Carter. Asa Carter was an alleged Ku Klux Klansman and the author of George Wallace’s 1963 “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech. He apparently thought that blacks were undeserving compared with the brave Indians, who had suffered terrible wrongs inflicted by the Yankees. According to Texas Monthly, Asa’s childhood friend Buddy Barnett said, “I heard him say many times that blacks don’t know what it is to be mistreated. The Indians have suffered more.”

Carter greatly admired the Indian people, especially the Cherokees. Admittedly, when I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be an Indian, so I can relate to that. 🙂 Just as I had my childlike notions, Carter’s depiction of the Indian way of life is romanticized much like the writings of Longfellow who said that the Indians “are a race possessing magnanimity, generosity, benevolence, and pure religion without hypocrisy” and who “have been most barbarously maltreated by the whites.”

One must give Carter some slack for his segregationist stance, considering the mindset of what it was like growing up in the South during the early 20th century. Anyone who condemns the story of Little Tree because of Carter’s supposed KKK connection is as short-sighted as those who condemn Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn because he uses the “n-word” (which at that time was common and not considered racist). Following that example, you would also have to boycott Dr. Seuss because of his early cartoons, which by today’s standards would be considered racist.

In the end, the author’s associations are irrelevant. Like all works of art, The Education of Little Tree takes on a reality independent of its creator’s prejudices. The story, in fact, is very multicultural as Little Tree encounters and learns from “outsiders” of all types. In Carter’s book, the characters live in a world that is not based not on skin color or which side of a war a person has fought on, but on simply trying to get along and do the best they can.

Regardless of Carter’s personal beliefs, The Education of Little Tree is an inspirational, positive work of profound beauty, spiritual truth, and common good. It is an inter-generational story of heartache, traditions, and ancient wisdom—a classic in every sense and deserves that rating. The book conveys a deep understanding of human nature. It speaks to the universal experience of growing up in a sometimes hostile world, with the idea that people can endure tremendous hardships and still find what’s good.

The book also continues to attract readers with its message of environmentalism and simple way of living in harmony with nature. It conveys many important lessons about people, life, and the natural world. The Indian ways have a lot to teach to anyone willing to listen. Reintroducing our children to nature is a great place to start. The concept of being connected to one’s place and also to one’s people is reinforced through the emphasis on family ties, which many people are sadly missing these days. Even as The Education of Little Tree teaches about the value of family and frugality, the book is never one that preaches; it’s just a story about a boy and his grandparents.

Childlike Wisdom

The Education of Little Tree is a wonderful slice of life—a portrait of an endearing child who impresses readers of all ages with his naïve wisdom and fresh perspective. Telling the story through the eyes of a little boy allowed the author to shift the perspective away from the drudgery of adult life and focus on an exploration of the environment without ingrained expectations. The book is full of engaging storytelling about important life lessons and innocent insights into all of the subtle things around us that mostly go unnoticed, but that young children often pick up on. Little Tree’s expressions and descriptions are adorable and heartwarming.

Even though a child is the main protagonist, this isn’t a children’s book. It has some coarse language and mature material, along with references to making and selling illegal moonshine. So it’s more appropriate for teens and adults. For additional information about the story’s underlying themes from a Christian perspective, click here. A study guide can be downloaded here and discussion/essay questions are available here. The book was also made into a movie (1997, PG) starring Joseph Ashton as Little Tree, Tantoo Cardinal as Granma, and John Cromwell as Granpa.

Please note that this book was NOT provided for free or at a discount in exchange for a review. It was purchased by a homeschooling family at their own expense.

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