David Bruce: Forrest Carter’s THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE: A Discussion Guide — Chapters 10-12

Chapter 10: Trading With a Christian

What main event happens in this chapter?

In this chapter, the main event is that Little Tree gets cheated in a trade by a man who calls himself a Christian.

What happens to Ol’ Ringer?

Ol’ Ringer is a dog that had helped to take care of the law officers who were after the still. After the excitement, Granpa and Granma sent the dogs out to find Little Tree, but Ol’ Ringer, who is blind, apparently ran into a tree and is seriously wounded. Granpa and Little Tree and the dogs find Ol’ Ringer, but he dies as they carry him home.

In this chapter, the readers should do some comparison and contrast to the man who cheats Little Tree. Ol’ Ringer is much better than the “Christian.” So is the storekeeper. In this chapter, Granpa talks about words. That also relates to the man who calls himself a Christian.

According to Granpa, “… ol’ Ringer died like all good mountains hounds want to die: doing for their folks and in the woods” (77). Ol’ Ringer shows a lot of faithfulness.

Although there is sadness in Ol’ Ringer’s death, Granpa points out the good part. For one thing, the sadness comes about because of the love they feel for Ol’ Ringer and because of the faithfulness Ol’ Ringer had shown. If Ol’ Ringer had not gone hunting for Little Tree, perhaps they wouldn’t care about them so much. Also, if you love someone, you will be sorry when that someone dies. The only way to get rid of that feeling of sadness is to not love anyone, but that is bad. Little Tree says,

… Granpa said everything you lost which you had loved give that feeling [of emptiness]. He said the only way round it was not to love anything, which was worse because you would feel empty all the time. (78)

Another thing is that when you remember someone you love, you remember only the good stuff and not the bad.

Why do we have the emphasis on language in this chapter?

Granpa is wary of words. He knows that they can mislead people, as when red blackberries are called green blackberries. Also, Granpa knows that people can use words to lie, as we see with both the “Christian” and the politician.

How good a person is Mr. Jenkins, the storekeeper?

Very good. He buys Granpa’s whiskey, and is kind to Little Tree. He always asks Little Tree to collect some wood chips for his stove. When he first asked Little Tree to do that, he offered Little Tree some candy, but Little Tree refused because picking up wood chips was easy work, so Mr. Jenkins always gave him a piece of candy that was about to go bad. Of course, we know that candy won’t spoil (the sugar sucks the moisture out of bacteria), so Mr. Jenkins was simply being kind to Little Tree. This shows once again that Little Tree is a naive narrator.

What do we learn from the scene with the politician?

Politicians come in for some heavy criticism in this book. The politician has a chauffeur (public servants tend to have a lot of servants). His wife smokes ready-made cigarettes. The politician does not shake Granpa’s and Little Tree’s hands (they are Indians and don’t vote).

In addition, the politician is anti-Catholic and tells many lies about them, including that priests and nuns mate and when they have a child they feed it to the dogs. Later, Granpa talks to Little Tree. He doesn’t worry about the mating habits of Catholics because he figures that’s their business. In addition, he doesn’t believe the politician about Catholics’ feeding their children to the dogs because no mother, whether human or animal, would do that. Finally, Granpa saw a Catholic once, and he was a peaceable man, although Granpa figured he was drunk because his collar was twisted around in a funny way. (We understand that the Catholic was a priest and so wore a priest’s collar.)

The politician is, of course, manipulating the voters with hatred — of Catholics. According to the politician, nothing will prevent the Catholics from putting the Pope in the White House unless the voters send the politician to Washington, D.C.

However, there are some inconsistencies in the politician’s story. For example, he seems very worried about the Catholics and about Washington, D.C., but if you look at his campaign literature, he is smiling as if there’s nothing to worry about.

What do we learn from the trade with the “Christian”?

One thing we learn is not to be taken in by the words of other people. This man says he is a Christian, but of course he doesn’t act like a Christian should act. The man says, “I’m a Christian” and he says that it’s his “Christian duty” to trade with Little Tree (84). We shouldn’t, however, think that the book is anti-Christian; after all, it is not anti-Catholic.

Another thing we learn is that the man is taking candy from a baby. Little Tree has worked hard for his fifty cents, and he wants to buy a box of candy for Granma for Christmas, but he loses his money to the “Christian.”

Why didn’t Granpa stop the trade?

Granpa says,

Ye see, Little Tree, ain’t no way of learning, except by letting ye do. Iff’n I had stopped ye from buying the calf, ye’d have always thought ye’d ought to had it. Iff’n I’d told ye to buy it, ye’d blame me fer the calf dying. Ye’ll have to learn as ye go. (87)

When Little Tree is asked what he learned from the trade, he answered, “I reckin I learned not to trade with Christians” (88). Fortunately, Granma restates what Little Tree has learned:

What ye mean, Little Tree, is that ye’ll be likely to have caution at the next feller who tells you how good and what a fine feller he is. (88)

Chapter 11: At the Crossroads Store

What do we learn about Granpa and words in this chapter?

We learn once again that Granpa is suspicious of words. He is anti-intellectual and sometimes doesn’t understand words. For example, in this chapter, Little Tree learns the word “abhor” and Granpa thinks that Little Tree has learned about a whore. Granpa tells Little Tree not to bother about learning that word.

What do we learn about mountain life in this chapter?

We have a scene at the crossroads store, which is interesting. This story is set during the Depression, something that doesn’t affect the family much (they are already poor). People who lived on farms during the Depression had it easier than many people in the city. Farmers at least could grow food to eat.

At the store, we learn about Old Man Barnett, who is a dentist of sorts. Unfortunately, poor people don’t get much medical care, including dental care. However, Old Man Barnett can at least pull teeth — without anesthetic, it seems. He uses a hot wire, a nail, and a hammer. He calls pulling teeth “jumping” teeth — apparently he makes the tooth jump out of a person’s mouth.

There is a little bit of humor here. After Little Tree watches an unsuccessful attempt at pulling a tooth, Little Tree thinks,

I made up my mind right then that I was not ever going to have a bad tooth. Or if I did, I wasn’t going to tell Old Man Barnett about it. (92)

What do we learn from the incident with the little sharecropper girl?

With any luck, students should learn something about the lives of poor people. The sharecroppers are taken advantage of, continually. They grow crops on a farmer’s land, for which they get a half or a third of the crop. However, after harvest, they usually get next to nothing, except what they have eaten. Sharecroppers have a poverty-stricken life, and they have large families so that the children can help pick the cotton. (Also, children often died back then, so that is another reason to have large families: to help ensure that some children live to adulthood.)

The sharecroppers are Christians, and they get the Holy Ghost at meetings. This is a great pleasure to them.

The little girl is about Little Tree’s age, and he shares a stick of candy with her. She licks quite a bit of the candy. Even though she is so little, she can pick 100 pounds of cotton a day. Her Pa can pick 500 pounds, if he works into the night. The little girl is barefoot and has bad teeth, and she wants to have a store-bought doll, which has been promised to her when times are better (which they probably won’t be).

We see a little bit of charity in this chapter. Granma makes a pair of calfskin moccasins (with red beads) for the little girl. The little girl likes the moccasins, but her sharecropper father is too proud is accept charity — especially from an Indian. When he finds out that she got the moccasins from Little Tree, he cuts a switch and whips her with it, then he takes the moccasins back to Little Tree, saying,

We’uns don’t take no charity … from nobody … and especially heathen savages! (97)

Granpa doesn’t bear the sharecropper any ill will. The sharecropper’s pride is “misplaced” (97), but pride is all the sharecropper has. He figures that the sharecropper knows that he can’t afford nice things for his children, so he whips them so that they won’t want nice things.

Once, Granpa saw a sharecropper who discovered two of his daughters looking at a Sears Roebuck catalog:

Granpa said that feller took a switch and whipped them young’uns ’till the blood run out of their legs. He said he watched, and the feller took the Sears Roebuck catalog and he went out behind the barn. He burned up the catalog, tore it all up first, like he hated that catalog. Granpa said then that the feller set down against the barn, where nobody could see him, and he cried. Granpa said he seen that and so he knowed. (97)

Granpa takes the time to understand most folk (I personally don’t think that all politicians are evil). Other people don’t, and so they think that poor people are lazy.

Poor people can make mistakes, like other people. The sharecropper thinks that Indians are heathens, but Granpa and his family go to church.

Chapter 12: A Dangerous Adventure

What do we learn in this chapter?

The mountain is life giving, but there are also dangers. You can gather food from the mountain; however, beware of the rattlesnakes that live on the mountain.

What is good about mountain life?

The mountain will give you food. The first part of this chapter is about gathering food. Little Tree, Granma, and Granpa pick Indian violets, from which Granma makes a tonic. They also gather evergreen needles in the winter, which Granma steeps in hot water for them to drink. In addition, they gather acorns, which Granma grinds up and makes into acorn fritters.

Occasionally, Granma will “accidentally” spill some sugar into the acorn meal, and then Little Tree gets an extra acorn fritter. Both Granpa and Little Tree like acorn fritters real well.

In addition, they gather dandelions for greens. The dandelions are mixed with other greens, such as nettles, which sting when you pick them, but which make good greens. Often, Granpa and Little Tree “failed to notice” (100) a nettle patch, but Granma was real good at finding them. Like other things, greens have their good and bad points:

Granpa said he had never knowed anything in life that, being pleasurable, didn’t have a damn catch to it — somewheres. Which is right. (100)

We also learn a little about Cherokee philosophy/religion in this chapter. The Earth is a mother, called Mon’a’lah. The Earth brings to birth all life that is found on her. The Earth also clears away the deadwood as needed — for example, with a storm.

One thing that we can learn from Indians is their way of living with Nature. I personally am not willing to give up my computer, but I wish that we were closer to Nature, as are many Indians. For example:

The white farmers gathered out of their gardens in late summer, but the Indian gathers from early spring, when the first greens start growing, all through the summer and fall, gathering acorns and nuts. Granpa said the woods would feed you, if you lived with the woods, instead of tearing them up. (103)

Still, it does take work.

Little Tree is very good at gathering berries. We see that flatlanders can also be naive. When a flatlander sees Little Tree’s berry-stained mouth, he thinks that Little Tree is ill.

The Indians are also what we call superstitious. They believe in bird signs, as did the ancient Greeks. Different birds have different meanings. For example, a red cardinal means that money will come to you.

Birds can also be funny. For example, they can overeat ripe cherries and become drunk.

What kind of fishing do Indians do?

Indians never fish for sport; they fish for food (107):

Granpa said it was the silliest damn thing in the world to go around killing for sport.

My friend Harry Thomas, a Winnebago Indian who lived for many years on the Appalachian Trail, once killed a large fish by dropping a rock on it; he ate the fish.

What happens in the episode with the rattlesnake?

We learn just how brave Granpa is and how much Granpa loves Little Tree and Granma loves Granpa. While Little Tree is hand-fishing, a rattlesnake attempts to bite him. Granpa puts his hand between the rattlesnake and Little Tree’s face, knowing that the rattlesnake will bite Little Tree’s face if Granpa moves his hand. Granpa is willing to be bitten in the place of Little Tree.

After strangling the rattlesnake, Granpa says, “Helldamnfire!” and “We showed that son of a bitch, didn’t we?” (110). But Little Tree admits that he himself didn’t have anything to do with the showing.

Fortunately, Granma’s knowledge is able to save Granpa’s life. After a bad night, he is OK, but weak, in the morning. Fortunately, Granpa is OK again soon.

At first, Little Tree blames himself for not being more alert, but Granma says that the accident was nobody’s fault, not even the rattlesnake’s:

She said we wasn’t to place fault ner gain on anything that just happened. Which made me feel some better, but not much. (113)

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