New lessons from a best-selling sham -- ''The Education of Little Tree'' provides readers with more than one lesson

The Education of Little Tree was the kind of book that San Francisco bookstore owner Nicky Salan saw customers buying ”in two’s and three’s.” More than 10 years after its author’s death, the autobiography of a Cherokee orphan growing up in the Tennessee mountains had found its audience the old-fashioned way — through word of mouth. Last May, when the American Booksellers Association chose Little Tree as the title its members most enjoyed selling, it seemed that one of the aphorisms in the book had come true: ”When you come on something good, first thing to do is share it with whoever you can find.” The review publication for the American Library Association, Booklist, said Little Tree was ”filled with love and respect for the Indian way of life.” ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY gave it an A-. And USA Today hailed its surprise best- seller status as a ”triumph.”

Then, in October, at the height of the book’s popularity, Emory University history professor Dan T. Carter wrote an essay for The New York Times exposing the autobiography as a hoax and revealing author Forrest Carter (who had died in 1979) to be Asa Earl Carter, a onetime segregationist speechwriter and Ku Klux Klan activist. Overnight the book became fiction — and moved from the Times’ nonfiction paperback best-seller list (where it had appeared for 19 weeks) to the fiction list (where it stayed for 10 more). The University of New Mexico Press, Little Tree‘s publisher, said it would remove the words ”A True Story” from the cover of subsequent editions.

The revelations shocked the book’s loyal audience, particularly because Little Tree had been embraced by teachers and children. ”I’ve gotten letters from school kids and teachers all over the country who want to pummel me,” Professor Carter recently told Entertainment Weekly.

”The book certainly has become more than the education of Little Tree,” says Gerald Vizenor, professor of Native American literature at the University of California at Berkeley. ”It’s become the education of people trying to decide if the author’s life and experience make a difference in the book.”

Do they? ”It’s the book that counts, not the author,” says Dee Brown, the 84-year-old author of the acclaimed Native American history Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. ”If people like the book, what does it matter who the author is? Most nonfiction books are part fiction.”

And Little Tree most certainly is fiction. Its author was no Cherokee orphan. ”He grew up in a conventional middle-class, rural, Southern family,” says Professor Carter. ”His father was a cattleman in Oxford, Alabama. His mother was a housewife.” Most of the book’s Cherokee language is ”made up,” says Geary Hobson, an English professor at the University of Oklahoma and a Cherokee. ”I knew from his use of language that he was not Cherokee — his references to Cherokee culture were of someone who’d maybe read a few books.”

On the other hand, many critics, though conceding that Little Tree’s romantic depiction of Native Americans may not harm young readers, say the book takes attention away from Indian titles more deserving of readership. ”There are very, very powerful and interesting stories by Indians,” says Vizenor, whose recommended titles include My Indian Boyhood by Luther Standing Bear and the Native American anthology I Tell You Now, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat (both published by the University of Nebraska Press). ”None of them have been as popular as Little Tree.” (According to Peter Moulson, marketing director for the University of New Mexico Press, Little Tree continues to sell about 16,000 copies a month.)

But Rennard Strickland, a law professor and director of the University of Oklahoma Center for the Study of American Indian Law and Policy who wrote the foreword to the paperback, maintains that Little Tree is consistent with ”the experience of southeastern Indians who were disassociated from tribes.” He plans to add a half page to the foreword that will address the revelations about the book’s author and include a quotation from Huckleberry Finn (”There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth”). Strickland thinks Carter may have become a different person in his later years, making it possible for him to write the book.

That’s what some of the students who had to read Little Tree for Ray Elliott’s English classes at Illinois’ Urbana High School think too. When Carter’s real identity was revealed, Elliott says, ”I think there was a certain sense of betrayal. But for the most part they looked at it as a work of literature standing alone. A lot of writers haven’t been perfect human beings.” Although the students are ”not accepting of what Carter had done and who he had been,” they’ve learned that contradictions and transformations in American literature are a fact of life. That may not have been part of Little Tree’s education, but it is a worthwhile lesson readers of Little Tree can now come away with.