Friday, May 29, 2009

The Education of Little Tree: where is the racism?

I just finished The Education of Little Tree. I'd heard about it for ages, but everyone said it was wonderful, so I avoided it—I have little stomach for "wonderful" books. Then I heard it was racist and Oprah had disowned it, so I got curious: How could a racist write a book that many people of many races would love? Writers can write from perspectives that are not their own, but that calls for empathy, and racists have little empathy for anyone they do not identify with.

Still, it stayed low on my priorities until I saw it on a "Do not read! Racist!" list. So I read it.

I looked hard for the racism. Most of the characters are Cherokee. They're good people. Only one black shows up in a very minor role, but he's good people. A Jew shows up, and he's good people. Some of the whites are not good people, and some of them are. The book isn't racist in its depictions of races.

Now, it has no good people who identify as Christian and several bad ones who do, so the book may be racist against the Christian race. But some of the good people in it seem to be Christian. Given the setting, it's extremely likely they are. I don't think any Christian who gets Christianity would be upset by its portrayal of Christian hypocrites.

But it may be racist in one way: none of the greedy people are good people. The store owner is decent, but there's a general sense that the race of greedy people screw up life for the rest of us.

Which may be why Oprah decided to disavow this book. If you're a Christian living in a fifty million dollar mansion, you might be glad to denounce a book that suggests rich people are part of the problem.

I don't know how accurate this book is. I've lived in the Deep South, and I've lived next to an Ojibway reservation in Ontario, and I didn't see anything that was insulting to southerners or Indians. If you're hoping to learn about Cherokee ways, this is not a good book to read—it's about a kid and his grandparents who live in the mountains, far from other people. But if you're hoping to learn that Indians are good people who were horribly treated by whites, this is a fine book to read. I can't do better than the Atlantic's reviewer: "“Some of it is sad, some of it is hilarious, some of it is unbelievable, and all of it is charming.”

Sherman Alexie said, "Little Tree is a lovely little book, and I sometimes wonder if it is an act of romantic atonement by a guilt-ridden White supremacist, but ultimately I think it is the racial hypocrisy of a White supremacist." I think Alexie's a great writer, but he over-estimates the literary abilities of white supremacists. It's true the characters are idealized, but the list of books with idealized characters is long: some stories are realistic, and some are romanticized. The Education of Little Tree is drawn with broad strokes, but so is The Boondocks.

I recommend Christina Berry's write-up about the controversy at All Things Cherokee: The Story Behind The Education of Little Tree.


  1. Hey, something I actually have inside perspective on.

    My godfather was a friend of Forrest's and functioned as his writer's representative. (G-father worked in the book biz). I called my father to check my memory of what G-father said about Forrest. (My godfather has dementia now.) Dad confirmed, "Good, good friends. It's hard for people to realize, but basically, if Theron and I had eliminated every racist person we knew, we wouldn't have had any friends. That's the way things were in the South back then."

    They traveled together through the west, promoting Carter's books. I think he didn't like my godmother -- he didn't like any "uppity women."

    When all the controversy about Carter came out, my dad asked Theron about it, did he think it was true? That he'd written things for the Klan? Theron said it might have been. It was never anything they'd discussed, but he could see it being true.

    But then my dad and godfather got into what was for them, the real question. Do we let one side of a person affect how we think of their work?

    They both really liked Little Tree and found some universal truths, especially about love, in the book. Carter also wrote "Watch for Me on the Mountain," one of the best books about Geronimo.

    Great stuff can come from people with feet of clay. (See Gandhi: fatherhood; MLK: fidelity; etc.) In a way, it makes me feel liberated. I don't have to be perfect -- heck, or even a "good person" -- to create something of value.

  2. Among my favorite "feet of clay" people is Senator Robert Byrd, who was one of the few decent senators during the Bush years. I figure what counts is the good work.

    My current take is Asa Carter was a racist, but Forrest Carter wasn't.

  3. One of my favourite books of all time* was written by someone who I disagree with on almost every political issue. Personally, I'm not willing to not have great works of art in my life simply because the artist's personal failings.

    (*"Winter's Tale" by Mark Helprin)

  4. Thank you for this clear, honest, independent-thinking discussion on the Education of Little Tree. I was all bummed checking the background on the internet until I came across this blog post and I couldn't agree with you more Will. The philosophy, culture and depictions in the book rang deep and true for me, and I don't think a numskull racist could wax yarns like this in their wildest dreams. Racism is by nature narrow minded, which as we all saw, genuine empathy of the challenges of native americans, blacks, Jews, Handicapped etc. wouldn't come out of a racists mouth unless they woke up and had a major revelation and were no longer racist any more atall :)