‘Timeless memoir’ from a hate-filled man

Booknotes looks at the 'self-reinvention' of a Klansman.

Asa Earl Carter in the 1950s

Asa Earl Carter in the 1950s

Mike Selby

When it was first published in 1976, ‘The Education of Little Tree’ simply amazed anyone who read it, and it was obvious that a new American classic had been born.

The gentle story of an orphan boy being raised by his Cherokee grandparents during the Depression, ‘Little Tree’ has become a timeless memoir, much like ‘Huckleberry Finn’ (which it is often compared to). It has sold millions of copies, was awarded the American Bookseller Association’s Book of the Year award, and was chosen by Oprah for her book club in 1994. It was also turned into the critically acclaimed film of the same name in 1997.

All of this is deeply strange. ‘The Education of Little Tree’ was written by Forrest Carter — a man so full of hate and bile it is hard to believe he had any time to type.

His real name was Asa Earl Carter, although he typically went by Ace. He studied journalism in Colorado, but moved his wife and four kids to Alabama in 1953, after accepting a job as a disc jockey for a radio station in Birmingham.

The first thing Carter did was vow to “keep Negro music off of the airwaves.” He was also fervently anti-Semitic, and was thought to be behind the dynamiting a number synagogues in Florida and Tennessee. When he heard that the town of Clinton, Tennessee, was desegregating their schools, Carter led a group of 200 men to terrorize the peaceful small town.

Back in Alabama, Carter launched a campaign of hate and violence when he became leader of Birmingham’s Ku Klux Klan chapter. He ordered the successful beating of Nat King Cole during one of his concerts, and was behind the castration of Edward Aaron — a World War II veteran who happened to be walking home from work in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time (his only crime was having dark skin). A heavy drinker, Carter frequently tried to assault numerous members of the Birmingham police.

Carter also made use of his writing skills, publishing his theories on white supremacy in a publication titled ‘The Southerner.’ His skills in rhetoric were noticed by Alabama’s Governor George Wallace, who hired Carter as his speech writer. Carter gave Wallace only his best, including Wallace’s infamous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” speech.

The progression of the Civil Rights Movement left little room left for the Carters of the world, and he relocated to Texas in 1970. It was here he changed his name to Forrest, after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate war hero and the original founder of the Ku Klux Klan. “Forest” Carter began to type his first novel, which was published in 1973 under the title ‘Gone to Texas.’ This was filmed in 1976 by Clint Eastwood as ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales.’

And it was in that very year that ‘The Education of Little Tree’ was published, subtitled ‘a true story by Forrest Carter.’  Carter had somehow reinvented himself, claiming to be an orphan raised by Cherokee grandparents.

The book’s success landed him on TV, being interviewed by Barbara Walters on the Today Show.  He grew a huge moustache and wore a cowboy hat tucked low, obviously worried he would be recognized. The interview went smoothly; Walter’s producers obviously didn’t look into Carter’s past. He was however recognized by an Alabama journalist, who made his claims to the New York Times. No one seemed to care.

Carter choked to death on his own vomit in 1979, after having a drunken fistfight with his son (old habits die hard).  It wasn’t until almost two decades after his death that the truth about Carter was made known. ‘The Transformation of a Klansman’ written by Dan Carter (a history professor and Carter’s own cousin) appeared in the New York Times. This time, everyone took notice.

So where does this leave ‘The Education of Little Tree?’ Is it possible to like the book, but not the book’s author?  Oprah didn’t think so, removing it from her highly influential book list. Neither did author Sherman Alexie (an actual Native American), who eloquently stated “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.”  Yet the guilt just isn’t there. “Ultimately I think it is the racial hypocrisy of a White supremacist.”

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library

Just Posted

The Kimberley Refugee Resettlement Group is active again after a few years off and are working to find a home for Gloria in Kimberley. Photo taken at a KRRG fundraiser several years ago. Bulletin file.
Kimberley Refugee Resettlement Group active once more

KRRG working to find a refugee a safe place to live in Kimberley

The Kimberley Aquatic Centre is set to reopen its doors to the public on July 6, after being shut down due to the pandemic in March, 2020. The Centre will be initially operating with reduced occupancy and limited program offerings. Bulletin file.
Kimberley Aquatic Centre set to re-open July 6

New safety infrastructure, limited guests and programming allow facility to open again

Interior Health is reporting a COVID-19 exposure at Selkirk Secondary in Kimberley. Bulletin file.
COVID-19 case identified at Selkirk Secondary in Kimberley

Interior Health is conducting contact tracing

The Kootenay International Junior Hockey League met for their AGM and announced a number of new initiatives, new awards and changes in their executive committee, as well as the starting date for the 2021-22 season. Paul Rodgers file.
KIJHL announces start dates for 2021-22 season

Season set to begin Oct. 1 with league still following all health guidelines

Calvin Dickson photo.
Severe thunderstorm watch in effect for East Kootenay

Conditions favourable for the development of thunderstorms, hail and heavy rain

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

(Black Press Media file)
Dirty money: Canadian currency the most germ-filled in the world, survey suggests

Canadian plastic currency was found to contain 209 bacterial cultures

(pixabay file shot)
B.C. ombudsperson labels youth confinement in jail ‘unsafe,’ calls for changes

Review states a maximum of 22 hours for youth, aged 12 from to 17, to be placed in solitary

Grace (left), a caribou that was born in a maternal pen north of Revelstoke, is alive and well said the province. It appears she even has a calf. Maternity pens aim to increase caribou calf survival by protecting them from predation until they are older and less vulnerable. (Contributed)
For the first time in years, caribou numbers increasing near Revelstoke

North herd growing but south herd still concerning

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Eleonore Alamillo-Laberge, 6, reads a book in Ottawa on Monday, June 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Parents will need to fight ‘COVID learning slump’ over summer: B.C. literacy experts

Parents who play an active role in educating their children this summer can reverse the slump by nearly 80%, says Janet Mort

Kelowna General Hospital. (File photo)
COVID-19 outbreak at Kelowna General Hospital declared over

Three people tested positive for the virus — two patients and one staff — one of whom died

The border crossing on Highway 11 in Abbotsford heading south (file)
Western premiers call for clarity, timelines on international travel, reopening rules

Trudeau has called Thursday meeting, premiers say they expect to leave that meeting with a plan

Most Read