David Bruce: Forrest Carter’s THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE: A Discussion Guide — Chapters 16-18

Chapter 16: Church-going

What is the main theme of this chapter?

The main theme of this chapter is religion. Often, Forrest Carter satirizes a certain kind of religion, as he does here. In this chapter, a certain kind of Christianity is criticized.

Granpa criticizes preachers as being stuck-up sometimes, as if they — and not God — decide who gets into Heaven. At the small church the family attends are many kinds of Protestants. Because the area is so sparsely populated, not every denomination can have its own church, so they all meet together in one church. This causes some disputes, as you can imagine. Some people believe in baptism by sprinkling, while others believe in total immersion. Some think you should call the preacher “Reverend,” while others think you should not. Both sides use the Bible to prove that their way is the best way, and that anyone who does it the other way is in danger of damnation.

Granpa’s opinion is right, I think. He says that if God is as “narra-headed” (153) as these people make Him out to be, then Heaven won’t be worth going to. Granpa in general doesn’t worry about such matters.

The preacher does not seem to be very good. There is only one rich family in the parish — the family that puts a dollar in the collection plate every Sunday — and the preacher cozies up to that rich family. He opens the car door for them, and when he preaches and makes a point, he says, “Ain’t that right, Mr. Johnson?” (154). Of course, it doesn’t matter whether Mr. Johnson thinks it is right; it matters only whether God knows it is right.

Granpa is naive when it comes to church. He hears the preacher carry on about the Pharisees and the Philistines, and Granpa thinks they are alive. He doesn’t like it when the preacher says that Granpa knows what the Pharisees are up to — as if Granpa has had dealings with the Pharisees. This causes Granpa to look hard at the preacher.

There are some good things and some bad things about the church. The public confession of sins is a bad thing. Sometimes a person will confess that he has done something bad to a feller, but the feller didn’t know anything about it previous to hearing it in church. This causes hard feelings. Once a woman stands out and says that she is guilty of fornicating, and a man yells, “Tell it all” (156). (The man never publicly confesses his sins.) The woman identifies the men she has fornicated with — one man leaves, and a couple of other men (perhaps her husband and his brother) quietly follow him. (After the public confession of sins, people sometimes get shot.) After the woman has done confessing her sins publicly, the men shun her (Granpa says that a man would have to be drunk to fornicate with her after today), but the women congratulate her.

A good thing about the church is charity. At the church people publicly identify other people who need help. Everybody pitches in to help these people; for example, sometimes a sharecropper may need help. Often, vegetables (in summer) or meat (in winter) are brought. Once, Granpa made a hickory limb chair and gave it to a family (157-158) — and he took the man aside to explain how to make the chair.

Little Tree recounts Granpa’s beliefs:

Granpa said that if you showed a feller how to do, it was a lot better than giving him something. He said if you learnt a man to make for hisself, then he would be all right; but if you just give him something and didn’t learn him anything, then you would be continually giving to the man the rest of your natural life. Granpa said you would be doing the man a disservice, for if he became dependent on you, you taken away his character and had stole it from him. (158)

Granpa does teach Little Tree about Moses, but the account is kind of confused — like Moses didn’t know where he was going in the desert for those 40 years. Like Little Tree writes, he and Granpa didn’t know much about the Bible.

Chapter 17: Mr. Wine

Is this book anti-religious?

No, it is not, as we can see from Mr. Wine. Mr. Wine is a very sympathetic character, and he is Jewish. We know that in a few ways. For one, “He had a little round cap that set on the back of his head” (161). Also, we learn that “Wine” is not his whole name. His name begins with “Wine” (162), but there is a whole lot more to it than that. Like some Indian names, Mr. Wine’s real name is so long and complicated that it makes sense sometimes to use a shorter version.

Mr. Wine is a good human being and grateful for life. He always brings Little Tree a present — usually an apple or an orange — but he always pretends to forget that he has a present. Fortunately, Little Tree reminds him when Mr. Wine says that there is something which he should remember but which he can’t remember.

Mr. Wine is also an educator. He teaches Little Tree how to tell time, and he teaches Little Tree math. He also passes on his ideas about money. For example, Mr. Wine gives Little Tree a pencil (163), and teaches him the right way to sharpen it — the thrifty way, which is not a miserly (stingy) way. There is a right way to treat money and possessions. You should treat them thriftily, not miserly. If you treat money thriftily, then you don’t waste your money, but you do spend your money for the things you ought to spend it on. If you treat your money miserly, then you won’t spend it on the things you should.

According to Mr. Wine, the way you treat money can affect your entire life, according to Little Tree’s summation of Mr. Wine’s ideas about money:

“If you are loose with your money, then you would get loose with your time, loose with your thinking and practical everything else. If a whole people got loose, then politicians seen they could get control. They would take over loose people and before long you had a dictator. Mr. Wine said no thrifty people was ever taken in by a dictator.” (164)

Mr. Wine does teach Little Tree about math, but he says that some things are more important than math. According to Mr. Wine, education can be divided up into two parts: technical and valuing (164-165). The technical helps you move ahead in life, but the valuing part is more important.

On p. 165, we read:

Mr. Wine said that if you learnt to place a value on being honest and thrifty, on doing your best, and on caring for folks; this was more important than anything. He said that if you was not taught these values, then no matter how modern you got about the technical part, you was not going to get anywheres atall.

Mr. Wine is good at charity. He brings a very nice coat — in Little Tree’s size — and says that he had made it for a relative, but that he had made it too small. According to Mr. Wine, “it was a sin to throw something away that could be used by somebody” (167). Fortunately, Little Tree volunteers to wear the coat.

Of course, maybe this isn’t charity, but instead it is a gift. On the other hand, a gift can be a good kind of charity.

One thing to notice is that this book is multicultural. Not only do we learn from the culture of the Cherokee Indians, but also we (and the Cherokee Indians) learn from the culture of the Jews.

Mr. Wine doesn’t have any family here, but he says his prayers at the same time his family overseas say their prayers. He and his family light a candle for prayers. That way, they are together. One night while Mr. Wine is saying his prayers, Little Tree hears him thank God for a little boy that has brought him such happiness. He means Little Tree, of course, but Little Tree thinks Mr. Wine is referring to one of his relatives.

This is the last time Little Tree sees Mr. Wine, who is very old. Little Tree shouts his thanks for the coat as Mr. Wine leaves, but Mr. Wine doesn’t hear him.

Chapter 18: Down from the Mountain

What happens in this chapter?

The main thing that happens in this chapter is that Little Tree is taken from his family and sent to an orphanage. This is foreshadowed by the change of seasons. Summer is over, and winter is coming on. The good times are over, and bad times are coming on. (But in Nature, even winter serves a purpose.)

During fall, many things work hard — those things that do not want to die during the winter. During this time, the blue jays are hard at work and not playing, and Granpa and Little Tree are busy chopping wood for the winter. On the other hand, butterflies know that they will die, and they take it easy. According to Granpa, the butterfly

was wiser than a lot of people. He didn’t fret about it. He knew he had served his purpose, and now his purpose was to die. (171)

The people who serve Granpa with the law order are what Little Tree calls “politicians” (171). Certainly, they are government bureaucrats. The law order says that the law will send Little Tree to an orphanage, unless the family contests the order within three days. The bureaucrats discount Mr. Wine, who understands mountain people much better than they do.

Among the things written in the law order is a statement that Granpa has a “bad reputation” (172). Of course, Granpa is a whiskey bootlegger, and we learn later that he spent time in jail once for that crime.

Much of what is said in the law order is false. For example, it says that Granpa and Granma are selfish and are using Little Tree for their own purposes — to make their retirement easier. Of course, we know that there is real love in the family, and we remember the time Granpa was bitten by the rattlesnake and saved Little Tree’s life.

Little Tree reacts by talking a lot and rocking fast in his rocking chair. He knows that the paper is incorrect.

Granpa needs further information and so sets off to town to see Mr. Wine. Unfortunately, Mr. Wine has died. He lived above a feed store, and the fat man who runs the feed store calls Mr. Wine “a damn Jew” (175).

Mr. Wine was thrifty to the end. He knew that he was going to die, and he left tags on all his possessions, telling who would get what. He even left a tag around his body, saying where his body should be shipped. Mr. Wine also left enough money for the shipment of his body — he knew the exact amount, and he left the exact amount. In addition, he leaves some things for Wales — that is, Granpa.

Granpa defends Mr. Wine. The fat man who runs the feed store criticizes Mr. Wine, but Granpa makes the point that Mr. Wine always paid his obligations.

When Mr. Wine died, there was a candle — perhaps of religious significance — burning by his side, so perhaps in a way he wasn’t alone when he died. On p. 169, we read,

Mr. Wine said all his folks was acrost the big water. He said there was not but one way he could be with them. He said he only lit the candle at certain times, and they lit a candle at the same time, and that they was together when they did this because their thoughts was together. Which sounds reasonable.

Since Mr. Wine has died, Granpa can’t get advice from him, so he goes to a lawyer. The lawyer is honest, and says that he could take Granpa’s money, but it wouldn’t help. Government bureaucrats don’t understand mountain people. Granpa leaves a dollar behind when he leaves.

Mr. Wine knows the family well. For Granma, he leaves sewing supplies. For Granpa, he leaves tools. For Little Tree, he leaves an apple. And for Willow John, he leaves a candle.

Little Tree cries that night, but the family makes the most of the next three days. Granma spills sugar almost every time she cooks for the next three days, and Granma went everywhere with Granpa and Little Tree (178). Little Tree buys candy for Granma and Granpa, hiding it for them where they will find it after he leaves.

Granma also tells Little Tree to remember the Dog Star (179). Whenever Little Tree looks at it, he should remember that Granpa and Granma are also looking at it. (Little Tree also wants Willow John to look at the Dog Star.) This is similar to Mr. Wine’s candle. (We also see this in the movie An American Tail.)

Granma also wants Little Tree to know that the Cherokees married his parents — so we learn that Little Tree is nota bastard (180).

At the bus station, the woman government bureaucrat ties a tag on Little Tree; the tag tells where Little Tree is going, just like Mr. Wine’s tag told where his body should be sent. It’s like Little Tree is dead.

As Little Tree goes away, he looks back at Granpa and notices that Granpa looks old (182).


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved












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PS: I like online reviews.

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