The Education of Little Tree


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Book Review

This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Historical controversy: The Education of Little Tree surged in popularity during the early 1990s. Initially billed as a Cherokee memoir, it was later discovered that an Alabama speechwriter and KKK member, Asa Earl Carter, wrote the book. He is notable for having written the speech for Governor George Wallace, which included the lines, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” This discovery prompted an apology from the American Booksellers Association, who had presented the book with an award in 1991. Oprah Winfrey also removed it from her suggested reading lists.

Plot Summary

Both of Little Tree’s parents have died by the time he is 5 years old. His Cherokee grandmother and half-Cherokee grandfather take him back to their home in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee. During the Great Depression, and with love and humor, his grandparents teach him The Way of the Cherokee.

Granma reads Shakespeare to Little Tree and Granpa. Granpa often grows agitated by the characters’ behaviors. Little Tree follows Granpa around during the days and learns about nature and animals. Granma tells him about his spiritual mind in contrast to his physical mind, and how he needs to feed his spirit to achieve a better life next time around. Little Tree and his grandparents encounter a number of white people who distrust or outright mock them. Little Tree often misses the searing remarks that his grandparents largely ignore.

His grandparents share tragic stories about their ancestors and the Trail of Tears. Granpa frequently shares his suspicious and convoluted views about politicians while teaching Little Tree the workings of his whiskey business. Granpa has to be secretive about his illegal job.

Once, two racist swindlers visit his grandparents’ property, hoping to partner with him in the business. When Granma and Granpa hear the men’s unsavory remarks about Little Tree, they allow the men to be covered in poison ivy and bug bites, and then get trapped in the woods overnight.

Granpa takes a rattlesnake bite meant for Little Tree. The boy runs to get Granma, who cuts Granpa, sucks out blood and covers him with her own clothes during a lengthy vigil in the woods. After Granpa’s delirium subsides, he tells a story about an experience during the Civil War. He had watched as Union soldiers regularly brought food to a poor family and kept their farm afloat by working their land. Granpa also brought the family supplies on occasion. Regulators ultimately shot the poor farmer and the Union soldier, as well as labeling the soldier a deserter and coward.

A man who touts his honesty by saying he’s a Christian sells Little Tree a dying calf. After the calf dies, Little Tree has a growing distrust for Christians. He and his grandparents, along with his grandparents’ old Cherokee friend, Willow John, attend the local church. Since the area is too small for a variety of churches, people from many denominations meet together. This causes frequent arguing about doctrine and leads to a lot of confusion for Granpa and Little Tree about the Bible. They witness the infighting and the fire-and-brimstone preaching and eventually decide they will simply remain spectators where religion is concerned.

Little Tree meets and grows to love his grandparents’ friends. Pine Billy is an emotional, fiddle-playing traveler who pops in on occasion. Mr. Wine, a clock repair man, also visits. Little Tree’s grandparents demonstrate their love for each other and for him in numerous and subtle ways. His grandparents’ friends, too, feel a strong affection for Little Tree. One store owner regularly gives the boy candy. When Little Tree feels bad about taking something for which he hasn’t paid, the shopkeeper assures him the boy is helping him get rid of candy that is too old to sell.

Mr. Wine pretends to forget he has presents for Little Tree in his pockets on each visit. He brings gifts such as clothing for Little Tree. He says they didn’t fit his far-away nephew, and he needs someone to take them off his hands. He also teaches Little Tree math and life lessons about money. Willow John and Little Tree privately exchange gifts by leaving things for the other. Once, Little Tree causes a commotion by leaving a frog in Willow John’s pocket during church.

Little Tree and his grandparents are distraught when politicians serve papers saying his grandparents are unfit guardians. As Granpa tries to fight to keep the boy, he seeks out Mr. Wine for help. He learns Mr. Wine has died. A lawyer in town refuses to take the case, knowing no judge will rule in favor of an Indian. Little Tree is bussed to an orphanage hours away. There, he’s criticized and mistreated by the reverend in charge. The reverend often says he regrets having taken in such a heathen. Little Tree sends spirit messages to his grandparents and Willow John. After months have passed, Granpa arrives to bring him home. They later learn that Willow John went to the school and so intimidated the reverend that he released Little Tree.

Within the next few years, Willow John, the grandparents and even all of the trusty farm dogs pass away. Little Tree’s loved ones leave him with the assurance that they will see him soon and that the next life will be better.

Christian Beliefs

Little Tree and his grandparents attend a church whose members come from various faith traditions. Mr. Wine says a prayer of thanks for the little boy who has brought him so much happiness. While Little Tree and his family have a number of experiences in church and encounters with people who claim to be godly, most don’t paint a positive picture of the Christian faith.

Other Belief Systems

Little Tree says he can feel Mon-o-lah, the earth mother, beneath his feet through the moccasins. Granma says everybody has two minds. One tends to the physical body while the other, the spirit mind, relates to one’s moral and behavioral choices. She says the spirit is all that lives when everything else dies, so it’s important that a person grows his spirit mind so it won’t disappear and make things difficult in his next life. She urges Little Tree to feed his spirit mind with kindness, love and understanding. Then it will grow so big, he can eventually know all about his past lives and avoid death altogether.

As Little Tree’s elders die, they assure him the next life will be better. Granma likens spring storms to the pain of childbirth and says those storms are spirits trying to get back into material forms again. While Little Tree is away, he believes he and his loved ones are sending messages to each other by way of the spirits in nature. Sightings of different birds are considered signs that tell the future. Granma urges Little Tree not to share these things with the white man’s world because it won’t do any good to try convincing them.

A con who calls himself a Christian sells Little Tree a nearly-dead calf. After the calf dies, Little Tree makes several mentions about how Christians can’t be trusted. A politician rails on Catholics, accusing them of causing all the problems in Washington. He also believes nuns and priests are mating and having children together. A poor sharecropper’s daughter tells Little Tree she’s a Christian and that her parents get the Holy Ghost nearly every time they go to church. She tells Little Tree he’s going to hell because he isn’t saved.

Granpa misunderstands many things about the Christian tradition and is put off by some of the religious practices people follow. His retelling of Bible stories, like the one of Moses, are filled with errors based on his own confusion. He distrusts the preacher and deacons, as he believes they think they determine who will go to hell. He believes a preacher should have a real job, like his. Little Tree talks about the different denominations represented in his church and how they often argue about their beliefs — predestination, baptism, love offerings and the appropriate title for a preacher.

Granpa is leery of what he calls “hard-shell Baptists” because he fears they will destroy the liquor trade. The church’s fire-and-brimstone preacher panders to a wealthy Episcopalian family. Granpa doesn’t understand why the preacher is always railing on Pharisees and Philistines, though he (Granpa) has never met any personally. Granpa and Little Tree ultimately feel so confused about the technicalities of the Bible and religion that they become onlookers and give up on trying to understand. After Willow John dies, they stop going to church at all.

The racist reverend who runs Little Tree’s orphanage is cruel and condescending toward the boy. He says Little Tree will go to hell because he’s a b—tard, so he doesn’t need to participate in the orphanage church services. When an orphanage teacher shows a picture, Little Tree identifies it aloud as animals mating, the aghast teacher sends him to the reverend. The reverend beats him severely for subjecting Christians to his evil.

Authority Roles

Little Tree’s grandparents are loving and devoted, teaching him all they can about their traditions and nature. Their friends also speak fondly to Little Tree, bring him gifts and share life lessons. Politicians, religious leaders and many other white characters show bigotry and hatred. They vilify Little Tree since he is Native American and had parents who weren’t officially wed outside of the Cherokee tradition.

Profanity & Violence

The Lord’s name is used in vain a number of times. Granpa and Little Tree use the words d–n and son of a b–ch fairly regularly, but never in front of Granma. Several white characters refer to Little Tree as a b–tard. The words s— and whore also appear a few times. Granpa tells Little Tree how naturally suspicious women are, saying some baby girls just a few days old look suspiciously at a sucking tit.

Little Tree’s grandparents tell him about the Trail of Tears. They explain how many of their ancestors died due to the harsh conditions of the long journey. The Cherokee often had to carry their dead loved ones for several days before soldiers would let them bury the bodies. Granpa talks in some detail about his own father’s bloody injuries as a Confederate soldier, and how the injuries eventually gave way to gangrene.

Sexual Content

Granpa tells a story of a man whose uncle acted insane after being caught in bed with another man’s wife. He also talks about his Uncle Enoch, whose penchant for alcohol often got him in trouble. Once, Enoch woke up in a bed with two women. An angry man who claimed the women were his wife and sister immediately confronted him. When Enoch couldn’t get to his clothes, he escaped holding a window shade around his private parts.

When Granpa is suffering from a snakebite, Grandma takes off her clothes to cover him. When he finally wakes up and is lucid, he teases her saying a man can’t lie down anywhere without her stripping naked and trying to get his attention. Granpa and Granma’s friend, Pine Billy, says he needs to be saved because he’s been doing a lot of fornicating. He blames the women for forcing his hand. He wants to be saved with the primitive Baptists, because they believe once you’re saved, you’re always saved. That means if he backslides into a little more fornicating, he won’t have to worry.

A woman at Little Tree’s church publically confesses to fornicating with some of the church men. Women in the congregation praise her for her confession, and Little Tree thinks they just want to know if their own men are involved. When Granpa and Little Tree hear cats yowling, Granpa says mating feels so good that the cats can’t help screaming about it.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at

Additional Comments

Prejudice: Many white characters demonstrate prejudice toward Little Tree and his family for their Native American heritage. Some even openly mock the family by mimicking stereotypical Native American signs, phrases and behaviors. Mr. Wine’s landlord refers to Wine as a “stingy, d–n Jew.”

Alcohol: Uncle Enoch has a whiskey business.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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