The best-selling 1976 memoir of life growing up as an orphan on a Cherokee reservation in backwoods Tennessee during the Great Depression. Later made into a movie, the story was eventually revealed to be a hoax in one of the most celebrated literary scandals of modern times. Forrest Carter was in fact the pseudonym of Asa Carter, a white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan member.
The Education of Little Tree, first published in 1976 and released in paperback in 1986, was an inspiring memoir of a Cherokee orphan brought up by his loving grandparents in 1930s Tennessee. It recounts how the narrator learned the Indian way of life from his elders, developed a deep appreciation of nature, and struggled to maintain his integrity in a white world full of prejudice. The memoir became a word-of-mouth cult classic, popular among both children and adults, though some criticized it as a little too warm and fuzzy, pandering shamelessly to New Age trendiness. Eventually almost a million copies were sold and the book became number-one on the New York Times Best Sellers' list.
But in the midst of the memoir's phenomenal success, a historian discovered that the author, Forrest Carter, was not at all who he pretended to be. Instead of the soulful, nature-loving Cherokee portrayed in the memoir, he was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan who had been raised in Alabama and had only the most marginal claims to Cherokee heritage. His real name was Asa Carter, and at one time he worked as a ghost-writer for George Wallace. Between 1946 and 1973, the Alabama native carved out a violent career in Southern politics as a Ku Klux Klan terrorist, right-wing radio announcer, home-grown American fascist and anti-Semite, rabble-rousing demagogue and secret author of the famous 1963 speech by Gov. George Wallace of Alabama: "Segregation now . . . Segregation tomorrow . . . Segregation forever."
He even organized a paramilitary unit of about 100 men that he called the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy. Among its acts, these white-sheeted sociopaths assaulted Nat (King) Cole during a concert in Birmingham in 1956. In 1957, the group, without Mr. Carter present, castrated a black man they chose at random in a Birmingham suburb as a warning to "uppity" Alabama blacks.
In 1970, Carter had run against Wallace in the Democratic primary because he thought Wallace had gone soft on blacks and communists. Fans of Little Tree were shocked, and the publisher deleted "A true story" from the book's cover.
Little Tree still maintains a strong following despite its tarnished reputation. Carter had died in 1979, just a few years after the book's publication, leaving it a mystery how such a racist hatemonger could manage to write a poignant story (or saccharine, depending on your view) that touched so many.
It is believed by some that Carter wrote The Education of Little Tree from his childhood memories of his Cherokee uncle, though his brother has said the family has no American Indian members. The publisher's remarks in the original edition of the book inaccurately describe Carter as "Storyteller in Council" to the Cherokee Nation. When Carter's background was widely publicized in 1991, the book was reclassified by the publisher as fiction. Today, a debate continues as to whether the book's lessons are altered by the identity of the author. As award-winning Native American author Sherman Alexie has 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."
Members of the Cherokee Nation have said that so-called "Cherokee" words and many customs in The Education of Little Tree are inaccurate, and some have said that the novel's characters are stereotyped. Several scholars and critics have agreed with this assessment, adding that Carter's treatment of Native Americans possibly plays into the romantic but racist conceit of the "Noble Savage."
When Carter died in 1979 he was working on The Wanderings of Little Tree, a sequel to The Education of Little Tree and on a screenplay version of the book. Twelve years after Carter's death, the fact that Forrest Carter was actually Asa Earl Carter was again exposed (following the original 1991 New York Times expose) by Dan T. Carter, who was a distant cousin and history professor. The supposed autobiographical truth of The Education of Little Tree was revealed to be a hoax.
In 2007, Oprah Winfrey pulled the book from a list of recommended titles on her web site. While Winfrey had promoted the book on her TV show in 1994, calling the novel "very spiritual," after learning the truth about Carter she said she "had to take the book off my shelf."
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