The Education Of Little Tree Summary

Forrest Carter

The Education Of Little Tree

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

The Education Of Little Tree Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Education Of Little Tree by Forrest Carter.

Though The Education of Little Tree is presented as a memoir, it is a work of fiction. It presents the life experiences of Forrest “Little Tree” Carter (Asa Earl Carter) in the late 1920s. After the death of his parents, Little Tree goes to live with his grandparents when he is five years old. His grandfather is half-Cherokee, his grandmother is full Cherokee, and they agree to shelter Little Tree after the boy latches onto his grandfather’s leg at the funeral, despite the broader family’s objections.

The trip to his grandparents’ cabin includes a bus ride to the base of a mountain, and then a nice walk the rest of the way. Granma hums a comforting song, and Granpa takes slow steps to allow Little Tree to keep pace. He falls asleep with the confidence and full heart of knowing that he is surrounded by love.

Granma spends a week making Little Tree a pair of boots, and when he wears them and walks through the forest, the feeling of the ground under his feet fills him with a sense of belonging and connection to the world around him. While trapping for turkeys with his grandfather, Little Tree observes a hawk dive down to kill a quail. Granpa calls this “The Way,” the cycle of life and death that repeats in nature. You should only take what you need, Granpa explains. They catch six turkeys with the trap, but Granpa directs Little Tree to select only three.

Little Tree’s grandparents begin teaching him how to read. They read from the classics Granpa brings from the library, like Shakespeare and Byron. Little Tree admires George Washington, though Granpa, being a moonshiner, disapproves of Washington’s proposal to enact a whiskey tax.

Little Tree continues to learn about life and the ways of the world. His grandparents focus on teaching him about love and understanding, which they model by being deeply connected with the way they communicate. They also teach Little Tree about the Trail of Tears. Some Cherokee did not move when forced, and instead fled to the mountains. These people, Little Tree learns, are his grandfather’s family.

During the winter, the family takes visitors and prepares for the spring planting. Eventually, Granpa teaches Little Tree how to distill whiskey. Granpa’s whiskey is very good because he takes such care to ensure its quality. He sells his whiskey, which he calls his “wares,” in town once a month. Granpa and Granma have a system to avoid being caught by the authorities for their illegal still operation, and Little Tree impresses them by being able to mislead a group of investigating officers.

Little Tree helps deliver Granpa’s wares, carefully and proudly moving the whiskey and then returning with the money safely in his pocket. One day in town, Little Tree comes across a man who offers to sell Little Tree a calf for fifty cents. Little Tree makes the deal, but the calf dies on the way home. Granpa examines the calf’s body and discovers that the animal had a sick liver. Granpa skins the calf, and Granma pays Little Tree a dime for the hide.

Eventually, the state learns about Little Tree, and forces him into a residential school. There he experiences prejudice against Indians. Willow John, a friend of Little Tree’s grandparents, sees how miserable the boy is and insists that Little Tree be allowed to leave the school.

The pace of the novel accelerates dramatically at this point. Willow John dies, and two years later, Granpa dies from the injuries he suffers from a fall. He keeps teaching Little Tree up until the very end. Granpa’s last words are, “It was good, Little Tree. Next time, it will be better. I’ll be seein’ ye.”

Granma dies the next spring, sitting on the porch in the rocking chair. She knew her time was coming, and left a note pinned to her chest for Little Tree. It reads, “Little Tree, I must go. Like you feel the trees, feel for us when you are listening. We will wait for you. Next time will be better. All is well. Granma.”

The book ends as the Great Depression begins, and Little Tree comes of age.

The Education of Little Tree is steeped in controversy, but not for the book’s contents, which are generally regarded as a touching depiction of the relationship between a young boy and his grandparents. The controversy comes from the author’s background.

“Forrest Carter” is the pen name of Asa Earl Carter, who was not a part-Cherokee man. Carter, in fact, had a history as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and was a speechwriter for the pro-segregation governor George Wallace.

This personal history stood in direct opposition to the novel’s themes, and has resulted in many critics recommending the book not be treated with the respect it received before the author’s background was known.

The National Public Radio program This American Life produced an episode that postulated that perhaps Carter had experienced a change of heart and had abandoned some of his previous political views.