- A cabin in the mountains above Anahim Lake. An old man is sitting on his porch, talking to his grandson:
Old Man: “These are sad times, boy. Things started going downhill when that interferin’ Queen Victoria of England decided to poke her nose into our business. She sent out that traitor John A. Macdonald to lay down taxes and stick the damned railroad all over the place and make it illegal to brew moonshine. We was doin’ just fine on our own till then.
Grandson: It was all the Queen’s fault, Grandpa?
Old Man: “Weren’t just her, son. If I recollect rightly, they was a bunch of ‘em in on it. The King of France. The King of Germany. They was all jealous of us being so free and easy out here. Victoria’s sister, Cleopatra, was a real bad one. She’s the one sweet-talked George Washington into puttin’ on the whiskey tax in America afor’n us.
Grandson: I thought Grandma said Cleopatra lived a way long time before them others?
Old Man: She did? Well, I can’t read them old books like your Grandma does. I reckon she’s probably right. Cleopatra was a bad’un, though. Coulda sworn she was mixed up in that whiskey tax business somewheres.
–from the entirely non-existent screenplay for the revised Canadian version of The Education of Little Tree
It didn’t take me long to know I was probably going to like Richard Friedenberg’s 1997 screen adaptation of The Education of Little Tree. The opening shots, of a bleak Depression-era mining camp somewhere in the Appalachians, ring true. Later scenes of the gorgeous vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and the grim walls & iron gates of the Notched Gap Indian School are equally striking. Mark Isham’s lyrical score, featuring fiddle and hammered dulcimer, enfolds the story like an early-morning mist. And James Cameron and Tantoo Cardinal are perfectly cast as the grandparents who will show their 5-year-old orphaned grandson, Little Tree, the beauty of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains and the wisdom of the Cherokee “Way.”
The Education of Little Tree is easily one of the best family films of recent years. It doesn’t capture all of the richness of the Forrest Carter novel on which it is based, but there are far more hits than misses. The book is extraordinarily rich in detail, from the web-spinning heroics of umbrella spiders to superstitions about bird calls to sharecroppers’ hardscrabble lives. You’d need a six-hour movie to capture half of that detail. Also missing from the film is the sense of how unique and strange Appalachian mountain culture was and is. History freezes and eddies here, and there’s a culture of both self-reliance and paranoia bred of centuries of isolation and moonshine and being on the losing side of the Civil War. A welcome here is earned, not given. The interior plateau of British Columbia, still marked Terra Incognita on maps in 1935, must have been a bit like that. The imaginary episode at the beginning of this month’s review is Carter transplanted in the Chilcotin. I couldn’t resist.
Nor does the movie quite capture the dialect that is one of the strongest features of Carter’s narrative (although Mika Boorem, who plays a sharecropper’s young daughter, is wonderful–she could have been the voice coach for everyone else on the set). The voice Forrest Carter gave Little Tree is as recognizable as Tom Sawyer’s or Huck Finn’s.
Those caveats aside, The Education of Little Tree doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to capturing the novel’s reverence for nature, respect for the Cherokee, and revulsion at residential schools and political and bureaucratic venality. Young Joseph Ashton is convincingly down-to-earth in the title role. The landscapes speak for themselves. I’m pretty sure that the next time I do an early morning hike up Mount Crawford or out on Pilot Bay I’m going to sit down and echo James Cromwell’s expression of amazement as he watches the dawn hit the Smoky Mountains: “She’s comin’ alive!” How incredible it now seems that we could have once seen fit to yank Native children out of their villages, tear them from the land, shave their hair, burn their clothes, strip them of their language, all in the name of a civilization whose “higher moral and education standards” included religious bigotry and a vast ecological ignorance. The Education of Little Tree is a fine portrait of a simpler, saner life. Some adults may find the story too sentimental, too lacking in shades of grey, but who says that the deepest truths have to be ambiguous? If the spirit of James Cromwell’s “She’s coming alive!” is contagious, that’s good enough for me. If your children watch the film and ask questions about the Trail of Tears and residential schools, there’s the kind of “teachable moment” that will one day lay to rest, once and for all, the John Wayne History of the West. Until then, we’ll have to put up with columnists like Steve Weatherbee who, in a recent commentary published in B.C. newspapers, says that the Native peoples of North America were victims of “demoralization” rather than genocide.
Speaking of moral ambiguity, some of you who read and enjoyed The Education of Little Tree may be unaware of the controversy which surrounded its republication by The University of New Mexico Press in 1986. The controversy also colored some reviewer’s perceptions of the film.
About 19 months after the book came out and hit the best seller lists, a Texas historian wrote an article claiming that Forrest Carter’s true identity was Asa Earl Carter, a notorious white-supremacists leader, right-wing radio announcer, speechwriter for George Wallace, and founder of the Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy. Not all of the original allegations have been fully substantiated, but there is little question that the author of Little Tree, originally published as autobiography and now classed as fiction, had a disturbing past. What to make of this knowledge is anybody’s guess. Did Carter undergo a dramatic conversion similar to Paul’s on the road to Damascus? Was he financially strapped, and lying through his teeth to make a few bucks off the credulity of readers hungry for moral uplift? Was he a racist with a genuine soft spot for mountain people and certain Natives? All these theories are out there.
We may never know the truth. And I don’t really care. Whatever Asa Carter might have been, that voice is utterly silent in The Education of Little Tree. I find no trace of the sinister. I’d go along with the person who commented that if a man such as Asa Earl Carter could write a book like The Education of Little Tree, there’s hope for redemption for us all. Of course, for those who prefer to see the glass half empty rather than half full, comfort can be taken in the words of the reviewer who dismissed Little Tree as “feel-good New Age pseudo-cultural pap” providing “simplistic answers to troubling and intricate questions” for “a generation of ethnocentric ignoramuses ill-prepared to deal with the complexities of a bewildering modern word”. So there.
(A final, patriotic footnote. The Education of Little Tree is actually a Canadian production. It was partially filmed near Harrington, in western Quebec (as well as on location in Tennessee & North Carolina). Veteran Canadian actor Graham Greene plays one of the lead roles. Tantoo Cardinal was born in Fort McMurray, Alberta. So many films are being produced in Canada these days it’s hard to keep track. We got talent. We got landscape. Even Martin Scorsese came to the Rockies when he needed a substitute for the Himalayas while filming Kundun.)
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
The Education of Little Tree has the strangest backstory of any film I’ve ever written about during the twenty-odd years I’ve been reviewing movies for Seldom Scene. It was a story of which I was only partially unaware when I wrote my original review, and not at all aware of when I’d earlier included The Education of Little Tree in my junior high school English curriculum. The curious reader can find more detailed information in the reference materials identified in Wikipedia articles on Forrest Carter’s novel and on Carter’s true identity as Asa Earl Carter. I’m just going to provide a brief, inadequate overview, and some personal reflections. I still enjoy both the book and the film, but the controversy has weighed heavier on me as the years have gone by.
When The Education of Little Tree was first published in 1976, it was identified as a memoir about a orphaned young boy’s childhood experiences being raised by his Cherokee grandparents in the mountains of Tennessee in the early 1930s. The book’s environmental themes, denunciation of racial injustice, loving descriptions of the Appalachian Mountains and of independent rural living, and its strong sense of common-sense humanity and non-doctrinaire spirituality had a powerful effect on many readers, myself included. Reprinted as a paperback, the novel made the top of the New York Times bestseller list, was recommended by Oprah Winfrey to her readers, and won the first-ever American Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award. Carter was working on a sequel to Little Tree, along with a screenplay, when he died in 1979.
Twelve years after Carter’s death, a history professor named Dan T. Carter (no relation) exploded the Forrest Carter myth in a New York Times article. It turns out that the author revered for his homespun Native spirituality and orphaned upbringing was in reality Asa Earl Carter, a virulently racist & anti-Semitic former Southern radio announcer and pamphleteer, a speechwriter for Gov. George Wallace during the time he was declaring “Segregation now…, Segregation tomorrow…, Segregation forever!” and the founder of a breakaway Ku Klux Klan organization responsible for several violent incidents involving attacks on black Americans. One commentator called Carter “the poet laureate of Southern racist speech writing.” His “product” was hate-filled vitriol: “The negro is the virus, but it is the Jew that inserts it into the veins of America.” Far from being the “storyteller to the Cherokee” he claimed to be, it has proven impossible to verify that Asa Carter had any Cherokee blood at all. He made up the Cherokee words in the novel. He was not an orphan, and his actual biography renders it impossible for Little Tree to be even marginally autobiographic. The book was a literary hoax by a man who spent 30 years hiding his true identity.
The story only becomes more complicated at this point. How could a stomach-churning bigot like Asa Carter have fooled so many people into believing that he was the opposite of everything he’d once stood for? He’d even been interviewed by Barbara Walters, and been applauded by some members of the Cherokee nations. Did Asa Carter have a genuine change of heart, and try to atone for his earlier bigotry by going as far in the opposite direction as he could imagine? Was he a con man to the bitter end, banking his royalties and laughing up his sleeve at the gullibility of everyone who’d been suckered by his new-age claptrap? Was he an unrepentant white supremacist who hid his true ideology under a “Noble Savage” smokescreen? Would a rabid anti-Semite include a sympathetic Jewish character (Mr. Wine) in his novel? Carter himself never provided clarifications, and now that he’s gone these questions will likely remain unanswered. But the book and the film remain, and what are we to make of them?
Knowing what we now know of its author’s personal history, is it still possible to take pleasure in either the book or the film? Personally, I’d answer in the affirmative. Stories can stand on their own. I reread The Education of Little Tree before watching the film again for this updated review. I still find parts of the novel deeply moving. As someone who has grown up in the mountains in the southern interior of British Columbia, I don’t find any of Carter’s descriptions of the Appalachians to ring false. Like Little Tree’s grandfather, I still see the beauty of the natural world in which I live to be a daily miracle. Little Tree’s “voice” is a marvelous creation, perhaps best captured in the chapter where he talks so enthusiastically about the joy of mastering the identification of a ripe watermelon. Despite everything I’ve learned about Asa Carter, I can’t dismiss the novel as a shallow compendium of soulless stereotypes. I’m also not ready to disavow my partiality for The Outlaw Josey Wales, which Roger Ebert described as “a strange and daring western” and which was also based on another, earlier novel by Forrest Carter. The man could tell a story, and that’s a fact. I don’t think either Chief Dan George, in Josey Wales, or Tantoo Cardinal & Graham Greene, in Little Tree, regretted their association with the Carter-based films.
Others, understandably, have had no hesitation in taking stronger stands. Oprah eventually disavowed the book, in 2007 removing it from a list of recommended titles on her website. Others have called the book “a fantasy about Native American spirituality” and damned it for
its saccharine environmentalism and patronizing descriptions of imaginary Cherokee grandparents.” Yet it’s also interesting to read differing comments from two writers for whom I have tremendous respect, one Native American and one who has written powerfully about the history of Native Americans. Sherman Alexie wrote: “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.” Dee Brown, the author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, said: “If people like the book, what does it matter who the author is? Most non-fiction books are part fiction.”
Could the novel have come out of an unrepentant Aryan Nations mindset? It’s possible. The story is about the struggles of individuals, about survivalism. There is no sense of community in the novel, neither white nor Native. Government is always a threat, offering nothing. All politicians are vile. State-sponsored education is presented only in the form of soulless social workers eager to ship their Native charges off to brutalizing Indian residential schools. Official religion is tainted by hypocrisy and kowtowing to the powers that be. The Cherokee are reduced to lone outriders, cut off from society in the same way Steve Earle’s moonshiner runners are. Crucially, even the book’s description of the infamous Trail of Tears is, I believe, a partial reinvention. From my own readings, I have no memory of the Cherokee being offered and refusing transportation for their forced migration. The grandfather tells Little Tree that the tears were those of the white people who witnessed the tragedy, but it is more likely that the Cherokee wept for their own dead. Did Carter genuinely empathize with the victims of the Cherokee tragedy, or was this just more evidence to be offered of sadistic government interference in the lives of people, white or Native, who just want to be left alone?
Perhaps the most telling fact in the Asa Carter story is that he never apologized for anything he’d said or done prior to being reborn as Forrest Carter. One can’t atone for one’s past if one doesn’t acknowledge its existence.
If you’d like to follow the Asa Earl Carter/Forrest Carter story a little further, the radio broadcast and documentary film below are excellent starting points:
Alex Blumberg, “Seeing the Forrest Through the Little Trees,” This American Life, June 13, 2014 [31 minutes]
The Reconstruction of Asa Carter, 2011 documentary [58 minutes]
Looking back at the cast & crew of The Education of Little Tree, director Richard Friedenberg seems to have had a short career in film, with only 10 directing credits over 30 years. His last film was in 2005. He had one Oscar nomination, for the screenplay for A River Runs Through It.
James Cromwell is a true veteran, with 189 acting credits, 1 Oscar nomination (for Babe), and 5 films in the works as I write this in early 2020. Award-winning Canadian actor Christopher Heyerdahl is another veteran, with 122 acting credits and a half dozen films completed for 2020.
Graham Greene, from the Six Nations reserve in Ontario, Canada, is one of the most successful Native actors working in film. He has 162 acting credits as I write this, with an astounding 11 films either just completed or in production. One Oscar nomination, for Dances With Wolves. It’s only fitting that in Little Tree (as in Dances With Wolves) he should have been matched with Tantoo Cardinal who, with her 122 acting credits, has been called the most widely recognized Native actress of her generation. She had 7 films on the go at the end of 2019 and early in 2020. She’s a recipient of the Order of Canada.
Joseph Ashton had 23 acting credit over 10 years; his last film was in 2004. Mika Boorem, who so impressed me in her small role as the sharecropper’s daughter, continued her acting career through 41 films and has now switched over to directing.
Mark Isham is now one of the world’s most highly respected composers of film scores, with 183 credits, one Oscar nomination (A River Runs Through It) and 5 films completed or in production in 2020.