David Bruce: Forrest Carter’s THE EDUCATION OF LITLE TREE: A Discussion Guide — Chapters 19-21 (Conclusion)

Chapter 19: The Dog Star

What happens in this chapter?

In this chapter, we learn about Little Tree’s life in the orphanage. Little Tree rides the bus to the orphanage, which is run by a minister. As always, organized religion comes under criticism in this book (as does government). The Reverend who runs the orphanage is not a good man. The Reverend expects Little Tree to be silent unless he is asked a question, and the Reverend criticizes Little Tree when he does not obey his orders. In addition, the Reverend calls Little Tree a bastard, although we know that his parents were married in a Cherokee ceremony. According to the Reverend, what the Cherokees did doesn’t count (185). Also, the Reverend interprets the Bible as saying that bastards can’t be saved. Therefore, Little Tree doesn’t have to go to church, but if he does, he must be silent. In addition, although times are hard, the Reverend does not sharpen his pencil in a thrifty way.

Who is Wilburn?

Wilburn is an orphan. We can contrast the way Wilburn is brought up to the way Little Tree has been brought up. (“Wilburn” is an interesting name — Wilburn may burn in hell, or he may burn down the orphanage someday.) Wilburn has a clubfoot. Because of it, perhaps, Wilburn will not be adopted (children with handicaps find it harder to be adopted). Wilburn doesn’t play with the other children; Wilburn can’t run, and his personality may prevent him from becoming friends with most other children. However, he is Little Tree’s friend.

Little Tree’s religion is different from Christianity. There is a sense of communion with and communicating with nature. Little Tree believes that trees communicate with each other. When he arrives at the orphanage, he believes that the trees have been told that he was coming. Wilburn doesn’t know that Little Tree talks to the trees.

Wilburn desperately wants to be adopted, although he says that he doesn’t care about being adopted. When visitors arrive to look at and possibly adopt the children, Wilburn hides his clubfoot behind his other foot. After the visitors reject him, Wilburn pees on his bed (188). At night, Wilburn cries.

Wilburn does have goals in life. When he grows up, he wants to “rob banks and orphanages” (189). On the other hand, Little Tree wants to be an Indian.

What role does the Dog Star play in this chapter?

Little Tree watches the Dog Star at night, because he knows that Granpa and Granma are also watching the Dog Star. Little Tree believes that the Dog Star can communicate messages between himself and Granpa and Granma. He believes that Granpa and Granma use the Dog Star to tell him what is happening to them, and he uses the Dog Star to send them the message that he wants to go home. Little Tree also knows that Willow John is watching the Dog Star.

Why does Little Tree get beaten?

Little Tree is pretty smart. At the school, he already knows the math that is being taught. However, once Little Tree is beaten at the orphanage for telling the truth. His teacher holds up a picture of deer and asks what is happening in the picture. She thinks the correct answer is that the deer are hurrying to get across the cold creek. However, Little Tree notices that the bucks are jumping the does, and he knows by the “bushes and trees that it was the time of the year when they done their mating” (190). This angers the woman and she sends him to the Reverend, who beats Little Tree badly, making his back bloody and scarring it. The Reverend tries to make Little Tree cry out, but he refuses.

We learn about the Indian way of bearing pain (192). The Cherokee believe that there is a spirit mind and a body mind. The body mind feels the pain of the body, but the spirit mind is concerned only with things of the spirit. When in pain, the Indian uses his or her spirit mind.

Once, the switch knocks Little Tree off his feet, but he gets up again because “Granpa said if ye could stay on yer feet, more than likely, ye would be all right” (192).

After the beating, every evening Little Tree tells Granpa and Granma and Willow John — through the Dog Star — that he wants to come home. Once, he sees a tall figure that he thinks is Granpa, but the figure doesn’t turn toward him when he yells “Granpa!” (193). Later we learn that the figure is Willow John.

What is Christmas like at the orphanage?

Poor. For one thing, visitors bring in a Christmas tree, but Little Tree thinks that there is no reason to kill this living tree. A woman gives Little Tree an orange, and makes him eat it. Later, she apparently goes to get him another orange, but she never returns. Little Tree is sorry that she made him eat the orange because he could have traded a piece of the orange to Wilburn for a piece of his apple — Little Tree likes apples. The gifts the children receive aren’t very good. Little Tree’s toy is broken. It is supposed to make a sound like a lion, but after Little Tree fixes the broken string he thinks it sounds more like a bullfrog.

How does Little Tree go home again?

Granpa visits that Christmas. He hugs Little Tree and then leaves him. Little Tree follows him to the bus stop and says that he wants to go home. Granpa takes him home with him on the bus. There is more to the story that we find out about in the next chapter.

 Chapter 20: Home Again

What is the homecoming like?

It is a time of joy. Little Tree and Granpa throw their shoes back at civilization and feel free after having rejected civilization. The dogs are ecstatic to see Little Tree again. And they have such a good time that when they see Granma, they fall into the creek.

Little Tree spends some time in his secret place — a long time. This restores his spirit:

Through that short winter day, I lay in my secret place. And my spirit didn’t hurt anymore. I was washed clean by the feeling song of the wind and the trees and the spring branch and the birds. (203)

In this chapter, we learn the story of Little Tree’s return. As Granpa and Granma watched the Dog Star, they began to have “bad feelings” (204). Then Willow John showed up, stayed the night, and then disappeared (he was on his way to the orphanage). At church, they find a message belt from Willow John saying that he was fine and would be back soon. What happened is that Willow John went to the orphanage, followed the Reverend for two days, then spoke to him and said that Little Tree must be returned to the mountain. This so unnerved the Reverend that he agreed. When Granpa came to pick up Little Tree, he wasn’t sure if Little Tree wanted to return to the mountain, so he let Little Tree decide. Fortunately, Little Tree followed Granpa to the bus stop.

We never hear about Wilburn again. Granma sends him a deer shirt, and Granpa wants to send him a long knife, but Little Tree stops him, saying that Wilburn would probably stab the Reverend with it (205).

Chapter 21: The Passing Song

What happens in this chapter?

In this chapter, several major characters die: Granpa, Granma, Willow John, and a couple of hounds: Blue Boy and Little Red.

The winter is difficult, and the family has to work hard to chop enough wood to get and stay warm. After all, Granpa is quite old now. However, Granpa points out that an occasional hard winter is necessary:

Granpa said hard winters was necessary occasional. It was nature’s way of cleaning things up and making things grow better. The ice broke off the weak limbs of the trees, so only the strong ones come through. It cleaned out the soft acorns and chinkapins, chestnuts and walnuts, and made for a hardier food crop in the mountains. (206)

It is the depth of the Great Depression, and according to Mr. Jenkins, everything is down except for the whiskey trade. He believes that “a feller had to drink more whiskey to fergit how bad off he was” (206).

During this summer, Little Tree becomes seven years old. At this time, he is given the marriage stick of his parents. Because they died young, there aren’t many notches on the stick. The Cherokees would make a notch to remember an important time; the deeper the notch, the happier the event.

Willow John is the first to die. One time, he doesn’t show up for church, so Granpa and Little Tree go off to find him. They find him in his lodge, dying. He asks to be taken outdoors (it is cold), where he sings his passing song to announce to the spirits that he is coming.

This anecdote may shed light on why Willow John wishes to die outside: Navy nurse Steven H. Brant once cared for a dying Native American who worried that his soul would not be able to rise to the afterlife unless he died in the open air. As you would expect, dying in an air-conditioned hospital with the windows shut tight terrified him. However, as the Native American was taking his last few breaths, Mr. Brant and some other nurses quickly pushed his wheeled bed down the hallway and outside in the open air. Mr. Brant says about the Native American, “He died in peace, knowing that his spirit would be released.”(Source: Linda Gambee Henry and James Douglas Henry, The Soul of the Caring Nurse, p. 15.)

Willow John also tells Granpa and Little Tree that he wants to be buried under an old fir-pine so that it can get nourishment from his body and so live longer. Stones are heaped over his corpse so that the tree — and not the coons — will get the food.

The Cherokees believe in immortality. When you die, you are reincarnated. They also believe in karma. The way that you live this life will determine the kind of life you live next time. One thing that is constant in the deaths of Willow John, Granpa, and Granma is that all of them believe that their next life will be better.

When Willow John dies, he tells Granpa that he will wait for Granpa and Granma, and Granpa says that they will come (209). Then Willow John sings his death song.

For two more years, Little Tree, Granpa, and Granma live together. Then Granpa slips and falls on the high trail. Following his fall, Granpa is delirious for part of the time — which Little Tree says is being in his spirit mind. Little Tree knows that Granpa will die, so he goes to Mr. Jenkins for help. Mr. Jenkins is too old and ill to walk, so he sends his son with Little Tree. They build Granpa’s coffin and carry him to his secret place on the high trail to bury him. In Granpa’s later years, Little Tree was doing much of the work, but he never said anything because he knew that Granpa wanted to feel useful (211). Pine Billy, being artistic, cries quite a lot when Granpa dies.

Granma is next to die. Little Tree comes back home at the end of the day and realizes that she has died. She is wearing her good dress, and she has left a note for Little Tree:

Little Tree, I must go. Like you feel the trees, feel for us when you are listening. We will wait for you. Next time will be better. All is well. Granma. (214)

Pine Billy helps at her funeral. Little Tree sees Granpa and Granma’s marriage stick — at the end of the stick are deep notches that they made for the happiness that Little Tree had brought them (214).

Little Tree takes off for the Nations, working at farms whenever he can — and whenever they allow him to keep his hounds with him. However, when Little Tree reaches the Nations, he finds that there is no Nation.

Finally, the two hounds die — Blue Boy last of all. Little Tree finds a mountain (more like a hill) for him to die at. The book ends with Little Tree saying that with Blue Boy’s “nose sense, I figgered more than likely Blue Boy was already halfway to the mountains. He’d have no trouble atall catching up with Granpa” (216).

So the book ends with a mention of immortality. All the dead characters are together in immortality.

Bibliography

Carter, Forrest. The Education of Little Tree. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Henry, Linda Gambee, and James Douglas Henry. The Soul of the Caring Nurse: Stories and Resources for Revitalizing Professional Passion. Washington, D.C.: American Nurses Association, 2004.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Merely Players. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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