The Education of Little Tree (by Forrest Carter)

I had never heard of this book, until a copy was given to me by a friend. Nor had I heard of its author Forrest Carter, also known as Asa Earl Carter. Apparently in his earlier life he was an extreme racist bigot, which makes the book all the more surprising.

'The Education of Little Tree' is the story of a five-year-old boy who is brought up by his Cherokee grandparents after his mother dies. Although the introduction claims it's an autobiographical reminiscence, it is in fact fiction. Apparently many of the details of Cherokee customs and language are invented rather than realistic.

Nevertheless, it's a very well-written book, charting Little Tree's growing awareness of life and customs, and the help he is able to give his grandfather. It was a delightful insight into a world I knew nothing about - even if some of the details were invented, it gave me a much better understanding of how some people may have lived, and the dread they had of white people who held so much power, yet had so little sympathy.

On the whole I found the book to be very pro-Cherokee, and positive about Little Tree's experiences, educational and otherwise. White men are shown to be bigoted and legalistic, and Little Tree's brief foray into a boarding school is heart-breaking. As a home educator, I could certainly appreciate the way he learned so much more with his grandparents than he would ever have learned in the sterile environment of the school he is sent to by social workers.

I can only assume that the author had repented of his former beliefs when he wrote it. Some critics consider the language offensive - it's written in a distinctive style, almost as if in five-year-old language at times. There's a lot of irony in the way it's written; we realise, for instance, how much his grandparents love him, and how minimal his assistance is, at first. For me, the colloquial writing added a lot to the realism of the story. It was never so convoluted as to be difficult to read.

All in all, I thought it a lovely book. I gather it's almostc an American classic now, and also the subject of huge controversy due to the author's previous life and beliefs. However, I can distinguish the writing from the writer. Whatever the Forrest Carter's motivation for the book, I found it often amusing, sometimes very moving, and altogether delightful.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 15th March 2009

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