I just finished reading “The Education of Little Tree” this morning, after having been recommended it years ago. It was probably that recommendation that encouraged me to buy it in the first place when I found it at a book sale.
I wouldn’t say that this is middle grade or YA, even though it follows a five-year-old bi-racial boy being raised in the 1930s by his Cherokee grandparents. Forrest Carter wrote the true story of his early boyhood in the mountains, and it is a really powerful story. Originally published in 1976, the book still gives a strong and beautiful tale of clashing cultures. When Little Tree’s parents die, his grandparents raise and educate them to the best of their ability. This means learning everything from how to catch a fish with his bare hands to learning words out of the dictionary every week. His church-going, hunting, and learning how to make whiskey despite prohibition gives a very clear idea of what the world was like for country folk in this time period, but the added layer of his Cherokee culture breathes a sort of life into the setting that I’ve never before encountered.
Forrest Carter instils his love and appreciation for the wilderness in you with every chapter. I was touched by the articulate way in which his Cherokee grandparents revealed the world to him, as their people perceived it. Despite the ways in which they are assimilated, the Wales family remains strong and proud in their culture and traditions, even if they are the only Indians left in that region (aside from Willow John, who is a fantastic character introduced later on in the book.)
What really wowed me most about this book was the voice though. The writing sings and paints pictures in a way that only someone who has mastered the English language could write, and yet the voice remains incredibly childlike as Little Tree explains his life. The result is a lot of touching, charming, and heartbreaking irony as the reader comprehends the racial and social implications of events that go way over a child’s head. Little Tree always sees the best in people, more or less, and that makes it so much more tragic to see politicians (to his Cherokee family, any white person in a suit can be assumed to be a politician) throw around terms like “half-breed” and “bastard” when describing him.
A lot of books and classics that offer racially diverse perspectives get hung up on the tragedy of racism, but what I love about The Education of Little Tree is that it never offers commentary on racial incidents. It doesn’t have to. Simply by presenting the events in his poetically succinct language, Forrest Carter manages to tell a fantastic story that leaves the reader feeling the full devastating force of racism one moment, and then frolicking in the woods with Little Tree once again. Despite some really tragic moments in the book, Little Tree’s youthful resilience makes it a fun, optimistic read.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who thinks you can’t write rich, complicated prose from the perspective a child. Also, if you’re looking to add more racial diversity to your reading list, I couldn’t commend this book enough for giving a great minority perspective without dwelling on the negative or belabouring the racial component of his rich, multi-faceted life.