David Bruce: Forrest Carter’s THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE: A Discussion Guide — Chapters 7-9

Chapter 7: Pine Billy

What does it take to be a mountain person?

If you are a mountain person, you have to be very alert. You also have to have knowledge. Granma understands herbs and home remedies. When the family is carrying leaves to fertilize their little corn patch, they are often distracted by other things, such as herbs that Granma collects, or by hickory nuts or other forms of food that must be gathered. One advantage of this is that carrying leaves is boring work, and gathering herbs and nuts brings some welcome relief from the work.

Why doesn’t Little Tree plow much when Granma is around?

Granpa does cuss because he is a man, and Little Tree cusses, too, when Granma can’t hear him. When plowing, the mule has gotten used to hearing cuss words and so, for example, the mule won’t turn right until he hears all of the command “Gee! Gee! GEE! DAMMITOHELL! GEE!” (49). Granma doesn’t want Little Tree to cuss, and so Little Tree can’t plow when Granma is around.

What kind of a person is Pine Billy?

Pine Billy is an interesting character. He plays music (a fiddle), and this makes him welcome. In addition, he brings news to the family. He is also a little greedy. He gives some sweet potatoes to Granma, who makes sweet potato pie, but it is Pine Billy who eats almost all of the pie — except for one piece that Little Tree eats.

Mountain courtesy is interesting. Pine Billy tells the family that he was just passing by, but of course the family lives way up in the mountains and Pine Billy had to walk a long way to see them.

We learn a little bit about the ignorance of the mountain people. Pine Billy sees what he thinks is a big-city criminal. The criminal says that he is from Chicago, but Pine Billy sees that the license plates on the criminal’s car are from Illinois, and so of course the criminal has been lying and is taken off to jail.

Also interesting is Pine Billy’s idea for making money. He hopes to win some money by entering an endorsement-writing contest for snuff. In writing his endorsement, he wrote that he would never use any other snuff than Red Eagle — that way, the company would think that they would get their money back if they gave it to Pine Billy.

Chapter 8: The Secret Place

Why is this chapter important? What do we learn about Cherokee traditions?

This chapter tells us some important things about the Cherokee way of life. For example, Little Tree spends some time playing in the woods, where he collects some musk bugs, which smell good. He takes them to Granma, so that she can enjoy their smell, too. Both Granpa and Granma say that they had never been aware of the musk bugs before (which is probably not true; they are letting Little Tree have the pleasure of thinking that he has introduced them to the musk bugs’ smell).

Also, we read,

Granma said I had done right, for when you come on something that is good, first thing to do is share it with whoever you can find; that way, the good spreads out to where no telling it will go. Which is right. (57)

Also, we learn that although Little Tree gets pretty wet in the woods, he is not criticized for it: “Cherokees never scolded their children for having anything to do with the woods” (57).

Like other cultures, the Cherokee learn from observing nature. Little Tree learns about persistence by watching a spider build a large web across a stream. The spider jumps up and down on a leaf to get enough spring to carry a string across the stream and is very happy when it discovers this idea.

In addition, Little Tree finds his secret place in the woods. All Cherokee Indians have a secret place. (Both Granpa and Granma have one.) Little Tree’s is a little ways up the mountain, and there is an old sweet gum tree there. The secret place is where a Cherokee can go to be alone.

We also learn about the two minds that the Cherokee say that all people have. One mind is concerned with the practical details of everyday — like how to stay alive by providing food, shelter, and clothing for yourself and your family. The other mind is the spirit mind, which is much different from the body-living mind.

You have to be careful not to let your body-living mind kill your spirit mind. If you become greedy and are always concerned with the body, then your spirit-mind can shrink up to the size of a hickory nut (59). This is very bad. According to the Cherokee, we are reincarnated. The way you are reincarnated has to do with how you lived your past life. If you have a hickory-nut-sized spirit mind, it can shrink up to the size of a pea in your next life and then you will become a dead person.

According to Granma, it is easy to spot dead people:

She said dead people when they looked at a woman saw nothing but dirty; when they looked at other people they saw nothing but bad; when they looked at a tree they saw nothing but lumber and profit; never beauty. Granma said they was dead people walking around. (60)

One thing that we can learn from nature is how to understand nature and the environment. The Cherokee believe that trees have spirits. If you are in tune with nature, you can understand what the tree spirits are saying. Once Granma’s Pa got worried because the oak tree spirits were worried. It turned out that the white men were coming to chop down the trees for lumber. The Cherokees were able to stop them by digging up the loggers’ road at night. Also, a tree helped by falling on a wagon, even though it was a perfectly healthy tree.

These oak trees were strong in spirit because they weren’t selfish; they left enough room for other vegetation to grow (61).

After rescuing the oaks, the Cherokees held a celebration, even singing a death song for the healthy oak that had sacrificed its life for the other trees.

Chapter 9: Granpa’s Trade

Where does Granpa get his money?

Granpa’s trade is making and selling whiskey. He lives on a mountain, which means that there is very little flat land for growing crops. The little flat land he has he uses to grow Indian corn, from which he makes whiskey (which has a reddish tint) with his still. Without the still, the family would not be able to survive. (Thomas Jefferson was correct in his advice to George Washington.)

One characteristic of Granpa is his freedom. Never in his life has he held a job from which he made a salary — never has he ever been in “public hire.” Granpa is a free man.

However, Granpa does believe in having a trade; his trade — which he learned from his Pa — is whiskey making.

Granpa does make good sense about judging a trade. Making whiskey was given a bad name by big-city criminals (during Prohibition), who would make whiskey that could kill a man. However, does it make sense to judge an entire trade by the worst of the people who engage in it? If you deal with one bad librarian, does that mean that libraries are bad?

Not only is Little Tree naive, but sometimes Granpa is, too. For example, take aging whiskey. Granpa has heard that aging whiskey can improve its flavor, so he tried it once. He let some whiskey age an entire week before tasting it, but it tasted the same as all the other whiskey he had made. (Of course, we know that aging whiskey means letting it age for 10 or more years.)

Granpa made one run of whiskey a month, and he always got 11 gallons of whiskey from his run. He sold 9 gallons to Mr. Jenkins, who ran “the store at the crossroads” (66). The money he received bought necessities for the family (and some emergency money). The two gallons he kept he drank, by himself and with company, and Granma used some in her cough medicine.

One thing Little Tree learns is that making whiskey is hard work. As he says,

As I say, it was hard work and I never could figure how some folks would say that lazy, good-for-nothings made whiskey. Whoever says that without a doubt has never made any. (68)

While making whiskey in late winter, they had a run-in with the law. Fortunately, the family was prepared. Whenever the law came around, Granma would let one of the dogs loose. The dog would go to Granpa and Little Tree, and so they knew there was law around. When it happened this time, Granpa stayed to hide the still (if the law had busted it up, it would have seriously hurt the family finances, and at Granpa’s age, it would be hard to get another still).

In this chapter, the law was coming toward the still, so Granma set all the dogs lose. As the law was nearing Little Tree, whom Granpa had sent back to the cabin, the dogs jumped on the law. Little Tree took off, running up the mountain, above the heads of the law. (The Cherokee run up a mountain not by going straight up, but by running sideways, putting their feet above shrubs so they get a good foothold.) In doing so, Little Tree showed remarkable presence of mind. He got away from the law and hid in the woods until the dogs, which had been sent by Granpa and Granma, found him.

Throughout this book, we find prejudice against the Indians. For a long time, there was prejudice against the Indians, just as there was prejudice against African-Americans. Even today, out west some people can’t say “Indian” without saying “lazy, good-for-nothing” in front of it. The law people talk about “a damn Indian kid” when they see Little Tree.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

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