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The Education of Little Tree

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Every once in a great while, a book circumvents the machinery of hyping, packaging, and megadeal-ing that generally paves the way to bestsellerdom and instead makes its way unheralded to the hearts and minds of readers.

Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree, an elegiac memoir about boyhood among Cherokees at the Depression’s darkest hour, is such a book. First issued in 1976, it went out of print after Delacorte, the publisher, was swallowed by Doubleday. The author died in 1979. But people who had been moved by Carter’s story kept writing to ask where they could find copies of the book.

Ten years after its original publication, the University of New Mexico Press reissued Little Tree and watched it grow. The publisher’s patience was rewarded. Five years later, Carter’s modest tome has finally settled into the No. 2 spot on The New York Times‘ trade paperback list, and Hollywood is dancing attendance.

Little Tree‘s uncanny ability not only to survive but to prevail is mirrored in its narrative. As the story opens, the 5-year-old hero leaves his mother’s funeral (his father died the year before) in the company of his grandparents, Cherokees whose home is a remote cabin in the mountains of Tennessee. They give him the Indian name ”Little Tree” and commence a gentle initiation into the customs by which their people have always lived.

Little Tree’s grandfather teaches by example: A turkey-hunting expedition offers an apt illustration of the principle at the heart of the Cherokee worldview. Explaining why they free three of the six turkeys caught in their trap, Little Tree’s grandfather says to him: ”It is The Way. Take only what ye need. When ye take the deer, do not take the best. Take the smaller and the slower and then the deer will grow stronger and always give you meat. Pakoh, the panther, knows (this) and so must ye.”

Little Tree’s education, a discovery of what both his body and spirit need, wakens him to a world that is alive with brothers and sisters: ”Lay-nah,” the babbling stream; ”Min-e-lee,” the quail-hen; ”Awi usdi,” the little deer. His grandmother sings of this animated universe, showing him how to ”hear the wind talking.” If you learn to listen to the trees, streams, birds, and deer, she teaches, you will never be alone.

Little Tree and his grandparents live in harmony with nature but at odds with the world outside. Encounters with ”civilization” are sometimes funny, frequently painful, and nearly always befuddling. Grandpa, so wise in the ways of the mountain, is utterly incapable of making sense out of the way white people behave. This innocence has tragic consequences when Little Tree is hauled off to an orphanage by the government, but persistence prevails in the end, and the boy comes home again.

Part of Little Tree‘s strong appeal, I suspect, is its tone of moral certainty. If Grandpa’s folksy wisdom feels a bit heavy-handed at times, it also serves as a touching reminder of a more innocent era. For young and old alike, Forrest Carter’s memoir brings alive once more, in luminously remembered detail, the shape and spirit of a world we had lost. A-

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