David Bruce: Forrest Carter’s THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE: A Discussion Guide — Chapters 13-15

Chapter 13: The Farm in the Clearing

What do we learn about Granpa’s history?

In this chapter, we learn quite a lot about Granpa’s history.

When a rattlesnake bites Granpa, he becomes delirious in the night, and he remembers when he was a boy. We find out some facts about Granpa’s boyhood in this chapter, and we learn that in 1867, Granpa was 9 years old.

In this chapter we learn about a farm in the clearing. Of course, in 1867, the Civil War has been over for just two years, and this chapter tells a story about some people who fought for the South and some people who fought for the North.

The farm in the clearing is hardscrabble. Working it is a man in a Johnny Reb uniform who has only one leg. His wife is worn out with poverty and work. They have two daughters, and there is a very old black man working with them. The black man is apparently an ex-slave who has stayed with the family who owned him.

As a Cherokee boy, Granpa wandered freely in the woods, and on one of his wanderings, he found the farm in the clearing. For a while, no one lived in the decrepit house, but after a while he noticed that someone was living there.

This family is so poor that the man and woman harness themselves to a plow and attempt to plow the field while the old black man tries to guide the plow. Obviously, this is hard work.

A number of Union soldiers see the people working in the field, watch them, and then leave. Later, the big Union patrol leader comes back and brings a poor, broken-down mule, which he drives into the field where the people are working. The patrol leader on one side of the field and Granpa on the other side keep the mule from running away into the woods. The people working in the field don’t notice them, and think that God sent them the mule, which of course they badly need.

What we are seeing here, of course, is charity. Some people are badly down on their luck, and a few other people try to help them. Granpa catches fish, and leaves them for the people to find. The Union soldier comes by and drops off a bag of seed corn. Eventually, the Union soldier starts working with the people in the clearing. He even brings a private, who plants apple trees around the plowed field.

However, The Education of Little Treeis anti-government, and the chapter ends with the Regulators taking over the farm. They ride in and put up a red flag. Perhaps the people in the field are squatters, or perhaps they haven’t paid their taxes, but the Regulators are going to take over the farm.

The Union sergeant is shot when he gets between the one-legged man and the Regulators, and the one-legged man and the old black man are also killed.

The politicians say that there was an uprising at the farm, which fortunately the Regulators quelled. It’s no wonder that Granpa distrusts the government and politicians. Some of this distrust probably stems in part because of Reconstruction and the carpetbaggers.

The people in the clearing, and the Union soldiers who helped that family loved the land, but the people who took over the farm loved money. The apple trees were plowed under because they wouldn’t make much money. The sergeant died with a little earth in his hand. The skinny private deserted.

Chapter 14: A Night on the Mountain

What ancestry is Granpa?

Granpa is part Cherokee (on his mother’s side) and part Scotch (on his father’s side). However, Little Tree says that Granpa thinks Indian.

How do Indians give gifts?

If an Indian wants for you to have a gift, he or she will simply leave it for you to find. Giving a gift is no big deal.

What happens to the big-city criminals?

This book is set during the time of Prohibition. A couple of big-city criminals have the bright idea of having “hicks” such as Granpa make whiskey for them. They will set Granpa up with a large still and will buy his whiskey from him. However, the criminals are not respectful of the hicks, and they do not realize how independent Granpa is.

Much of this chapter shows that the woods can a dangerous place if you don’t know what you’re doing in them. Of course, Little Tree and Granpa understand the woods, but the criminals don’t.

When Granpa hears that the criminals are looking for him, he immediately thinks they are “tax-law” (124), but Mr. Jenkins the storeowner says they aren’t.

The two criminals’ names are Mr. Slick and Mr. Chunk — nicknames, apparently.

Granma is suspicious of the criminals, and doesn’t answer them, making them think she doesn’t understand English. (Granpa is away, hiding the still better.) The family’s suspicion of the criminals is interesting, because the criminals’ crime is their crime: bootlegging. However, the criminals deserve what they get, because of their disrespect for the family.

When the criminals arrive at the family’s house, they say things like “Screw the old squaw” and make fun of Little Tree for saying “reckin.” Granma lets a dog loose to warn Granpa that the criminals have arrived.

Little Tree, of course, is a naive narrator. He doesn’t understand when the criminals make fun of them, but of course Granpa and Granma do, and they get revenge against the criminals.

The criminals offer Little Tree a dollar to take them to Granpa. Little Tree is intelligent, and so he doesn’t take them directly to Granpa (and the still); instead, he leads them on the high trail. Along the way, the two men do such stupid stuff as rest in a bed of poison ivy and get lost in a hollow.

They also show some disrespect to Little Tree by asking if he remembers his Pa. He doesn’t, so Mr. Slick says, “That would make you a bastard, wouldn’t it, kid?” (126). Little Tree agrees, although he hasn’t gotten to the B’s in the dictionary and so doesn’t know the word means.

Granpa is smart. When the two criminals go down in the hollow, Granpa yells, and the two criminals keep firing their guns until they are out of ammunition. Granpa and Little Tree eat, and they leave the two criminals in the hollow until morning.

The next morning, Granpa sends Little Tree to Granma to fix breakfast. The food for Little Tree and Granpa is to be put in a paper sack and the food for the criminals is to be put in a tow sack. Granpa also tells Little Tree to tell Granma what the criminals have said about Little Tree. When Little Tree tells Granma what the criminals had said (that he’s a bastard), Granma puts some root powders in the criminals’ food that she never had put in food before. Little Tree doesn’t know what she’s doing (he’s naive), but the readers learn that she has fixed the food so that it will give the men diarrhea (they end up wiping their bums with poison ivy leaves).

Finally, the two criminals leave, and they give the family’s home a wide berth. Granpa says that Little Tree has earned his dollar, as the two criminals could have met him if they had wanted to, but apparently they are no longer interested in meeting him.

Chapter 15: Willow John

What is this chapter mostly about?

This chapter is mostly about Willow Tree, but it is in part about Granpa and nature. He knows various “signs” for telling the best time to plant; however, Granpa also likes to fish, and so Granma thinks that some of the signs saying, don’t plant, may just be Granpa wanting to go fishing instead.

We learn a little about the Cherokee method of planting. In the area of the field that is level, Granpa and Little Tree use a mule and a plow; however, on the sides of the mountain, Granpa uses a Cherokee planting stick. It is simply a stick that you push into the ground; into the little hole that it makes, you drop a seed.

We learn a little about watermelons, too. It’s very hard to tell when a watermelon is ripe, and Granpa and Little Tree make quite a production out of the testing process. In evaluating a watermelon, you strike it and listen to the sound it makes:

            1) think: green

            2) thank: green but getting riper

            3) thunk: good eating

As you can see, it’s two to one against finding a ripe watermelon; Granpa says that all life is two to one against. This watermelon turns out to be good eating.

By the way, when David Letterman was a kid, he and his grandfather used to hunt watermelons. His grandfather told him to always sneak up on watermelons because if the watermelon knows that you are coming, it will run away.

According to the Cherokee, you don’t just have a birth-day — you have a birth-season. Little Tree’s birth-season is summer, which means that he celebrates his birthday all summer. During his birth-season, Little Tree — as is the Cherokee custom — is told of his birthplace, and of his father and mother (143).

On p. 144, we learn that Little Tree is now six years old. As always, Little Tree is naive. Part of the gift that was given to him was an understanding of Nature. Because of that understanding, Little Tree announces that he is no longer afraid of the dark in the hollows.

We always learn that Little Tree is now up to learning the B’s in the dictionary, but that one of the pages has been torn out. Because of that missing page, the family buys the dictionary from the library for 75 cents — a fortune to this family. We can guess why the page has been torn out — it is probably the page that defines the word “bastard.”

We also hear from Pine Billy again. Because it is watermelon season — and Pine Billy likes watermelon — he starts coming around more often. Little Tree knows that Pine Billy is not stuck up because he never mentions the money he won from the slogan-writing contest and from helping capture the big-city criminal. Of course, we can guess that nothing ever came of Pine Billy’s money-making schemes.

Pine Billy is an interesting character. His particular sin is fornicating, but he still wants to go to heaven. Therefore, he decides to become a primitive Baptist. They believe that once you are saved, you will always be saved, even if you backslide into a little fornicating every once in a while.

The Education of Little Treeis not totally against religion, although it is satiric on the subject of religion. Later, we will see that the author of this book has respect for a Jewish man who goes by the name of Mr. Wine.

Granpa is a little suspicious of church, but Granma enjoys it, and Granpa enjoys seeing Granma in her Sunday dress. However, Granpa thinks that some people, if they aren’t careful, can start worshipping the preacher instead of God.

Write a short character analysis of Willow John.

Willow John is a lot like Granpa, but older. He is very tall, and he has been hurt in his life. Once, he left the mountain for three years to travel to the Nations — Oklahoma — but when he came back, he wouldn’t talk about the Nations, except to say that there was no Nation. Apparently, he traveled to the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma, but found only misery and poverty.

Willow Tree has eyes like another famous Indian — the Apache Geronimo. Both have eyes that have seen an awful lot of misery.

Little Tree is good for Willow John because Little Tree can make him forget some of his misery. Willow John gives Little Tree a present in the Indian way. He simply leaves the gift — a knife — where Little Tree can find it. Therefore, Little Tree gives Willow John a gift in the Indian way. He puts a nickel and a big bullfrog in Willow John’s pocket at church. When the preacher says “Lord” (148), the bullfrog makes a noise and most people think something supernatural is going on, but Willow John first laughs, then cries — for a long time.

Willow John is an original — he doesn’t bow his head for prayer, he doesn’t take off his hat in church, and he ignores the collection plate. Also, he ignores the preacher when the preacher peaches about him.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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