Not so with The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter. As I finished the book it was a tears-dripping-down-both-cheeks, uncontrollable-quivering-lip, blow-my-nose-in-my-sleeve sort of cry. This book is for real.
The story begins with a four year old boy, “half-breed” Cherokee, losing both of his parents and moving in with his grandparents in a mystical mountain hollow. The love story is set in the midst of prohibition and the great depression and describes deeply the relationship between Little Tree and his grandparents, animals, and the surrounding landscape.
Everything in this book comes to life. From the oak branches that “reach out” and grab Little Tree as he makes his way to the lowlands to the morning sun as it cascades over the mountain range. The reader is helpless but to actually believe that oak trees send messages and the wind tells a tale.
As I said, this is a love story and what stood out to me the most was the intimate depiction of the sacred sort of relationship between Little Tree and his Grandparents. In describing the Cherokee understanding of love, Carter writes:
And when they would be talking and Granma would say, “Do ye kin me, Wales?” and he would answer, “I kin ye,” it meant, “I understand ye.” To them, love and understanding was the same thing. Granma said you couldn’t love something you didn’t understand; nor could you love people, nor God, if you didn’t understand the people and God.
Granpa and Granma had an understanding, and so they had a love. Granma said the understanding run deeper as the years went by, and she reckined it would get beyond anything mortal folks could think upon or explain. And so they called it “kin”. (38)
The Education of Little Tree is a striking tale, one that has caused me to revisit and reflect on my own relationship with Nature. The book is packed with life lessons and wisdom filled parables. It also gave me some fresh insight into the story of the Cherokee Nation and the beauty as well as marginalization of their people.
It’s definitely made it onto my personal top five, and may even be my new favorite.
And if you’re interested in some controversy surrounding the novel, go here.