Indian Frauds: “The Education of Little Tree” and Oprah’s Book Club

From reznet:

The Education of Oprah Winfrey

By Hillel Italie

NEW YORK (AP) — Oprah Winfrey has pulled a discredited children’s book, Forrest Carter’s “The Education of Little Tree,” from a list of recommended titles on her Web site, blaming an archival “error” for including a work considered the literary hoax of a white supremacist.

“The archived listing was posted in error and has been removed,” Winfrey spokeswoman Angela DePaul told the Associated Press, adding that she did not know long “Little Tree” had been on the site.

The AP had inquired about “The Education of Little Tree,” which was featured on the “Oprah’s Favorite Books” page her Web site, with “The Color Purple,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and other “guaranteed page-turners from Oprah’s personal collection.” The list can also be linked to in-store computer searches at Barnes & Noble.

First published in 1976, “The Education of Little Tree” was supposedly the real-life story of an orphaned boy raised by his Cherokee grandparents; the book became a million seller and sentimental favorite. In 1991, the American Booksellers Association gave “Little Tree” its first-ever ABBY award, established “to honor the ‘hidden treasures’ that ABA bookstore members most enjoyed recommending.”

But suspicions about Carter, who died in 1979, began in his lifetime and were raised significantly in the early 1990s, not long after the book won the ABBY. Carter was identified as Asa Earl Carter, a member of the Ku Klux Klan and speechwriter for former Alabama governor George Wallace who wrote Wallace’s infamous vow: “Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”

“‘Little Tree’ is a lovely little book, and I sometimes wonder if it is an act of romantic atonement by a guilt-ridden white supremacist, but ultimately I think it is the racial hypocrisy of a white supremacist,” says author Sherman Alexie, whose books include “Ten Little Indians” and the young adult novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which won a National Book Award for young people’s literature Nov. 14.

“I am surprised, of course, that Winfrey would recommend it,” says Lorene Roy, president of the American Library Association. “Besides the questions about the author’s identity, the book is known for a simplistic plot that used a lot of stereotypical imagery.”

Winfrey had long been aware of the book’s background and has acknowledged she once was a fan. She discussed “Little Tree” on her TV show in 1994, recalling a “loving story about a boy growing up with his grandfather and learning about nature and speaking to the trees. And it’s very spiritual.”

When Winfrey learned the truth about Carter, she felt she “had to take the book off my shelf.”

“I no longer — even though I had been moved by the story — felt the same about this book,” she said in 1994. “There’s a part of me that said, ‘Well, OK, if a person has two sides of them and can write this wonderful story and also write the segregation forever speech, maybe that’s OK.’ But I couldn’t — I couldn’t live with that.”

According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of industry sales, “Little Tree” has sold about 11,000 copies in 2007. It was originally released by the Delacorte Press, then reissued a decade later by the University of New Mexico Press, which still publishes the book.

Winfrey has endorsed at least one other work that was eventually disputed: James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” a memoir of addiction and recovery that she chose for her book club in 2005. After learning the book contained extensive fabrications, Winfrey chewed out the author on her show, but never withdrew her pick. “A Million Little Pieces” is still listed on her Web site.

18 thoughts on “Indian Frauds: “The Education of Little Tree” and Oprah’s Book Club

  1. theCHEROKEErose October 13, 2008 / 4:54 pm

    i dont care who wrote it…its a still a pretty good book…

  2. Dee October 14, 2008 / 2:59 pm

    This is a wonderful movie, and I will always love “Little Tree”. Why does someone always try to ruin things! I am so disappointed in Oprah!

  3. Lisa Rosati December 14, 2008 / 3:36 am

    Fraud, schmod. If something is good it just is-the political affiliation of the author be damned.
    … though I have to admit that it does come as a surprise…

  4. Faith Phelan January 14, 2009 / 12:25 pm

    This book was recommended by me to adolesants years ago. Fraud it may be but it also is a book with a message.

  5. Leroy Thomas February 3, 2009 / 8:56 am

    I just saw the movie on HBO, which did not print or depict anything about the novelist’s segregationist lifestyle. One thing I decided after 60 years of my religious convictions, is that racism absolutely CAN BE CURED, because The Education of Little Tee was positive proof that he left the ignorance of his youth forever in the past, and he grew into a brilliant, inspiring author worthy of every laurel the world can bestow. And thank God that HBO made the deliberate decision not to disclose the dispute.

  6. John Lewis February 6, 2009 / 9:50 am

    Just finished reading “The Education of Little Tree”. I find it hard to believe that anyone described by this article could have written this book. I have decided for me I will let the book speak for itself. I believe the story shows how shortsided, hurtful and self-serving prejudice actually is. I also believe the story shows true caring love between Little Tree, his grandparents and the folks his grandparents surrounded him with. This is a book I will be giving my grandkids as I do not believe the book on it’s own carries the message of the life of the author. Maybe what it carries are the amends of the author trying to set things right. But this we will never know.

  7. Dirk Noel February 7, 2009 / 6:03 pm

    Here’s a thought…let’s discredit Thomas Jefferson and his writings. He was after all, a slave owner who had a change of heart. “Little Tree” is a wonderfully woven, poignant tale. Carters past racism or later beliefs certainly are not evident in this story. T0 remove this work from ones shelf is a step toward book burning. Such an act is every bit as ignorant as racism.

  8. Mark February 17, 2009 / 8:38 pm

    How does anybody know if this isn’t true or not. I just see comments about the author being a member of the KKK. We all have skeleton’s in our closets. This book and movie is moving to say the least. I think that too many people who think they mean a whole lot in this world invoke their opinion and are afraid, yes afraid of standing for something that is good and wholesome all in the name of political correctness and for ratings (Oprah) who by the way doesn’t have a lot of stock in my opinion. Cowards everyone of you.

  9. Alicia McKellar February 19, 2009 / 4:40 pm

    I teach in a community day school 7-12 grades. We read Education of Little Tree as a class. We used a variety of media such as How the West was Lost and PBS’s Geronimo to parallel some of the points brought out in the book. We discussed racism, boarding schools and forced assimilation. My students were touched by the story, despite the stereotypes. The imagery described in the book, as well as the bonding of the characters were powerful examples of literature characterization and setting. I will use this article to discuss your perspective, furthering their understanding that there are many ways to interpret information.

  10. Madelaine February 24, 2009 / 6:25 pm

    Finished reading this book yesterday. I had heard years ago that it was a “fraud” in the sense that it wasn’t a true story but didn’t know anything else about it. I had had it on my shelf for several years. It had been a gift and I hadn’t wanted to offend the giver by telling them that I had heard it was a fraud. I finally decided to read it, thinking that it may be interesting, even if not true. It was very soothing to my spirit, which needed to hear a story about people who live and love nature the way that I do, though I am not Native American. It was a very satisfying story that made me weep for the trees, for the Cherokee, and for all people everywhere trying to keep families together through economic hard times, and cultural exclusion from white, Christian America. I decided to read why it was a fraud today, and was completely horrified to read Asa Carter’s brief bio online.

    Apparently, he was part Cherokee and did go on to reinvent himself as that in the last few years that he was alive and writing. What a horrible man, what a lovely book he wrote. How to reconcile the two? As a Feminist, I am not that happy with Thomas Jefferson and his 14 year old black mistresses either! Freedom and human dignity is freedom and human dignity for all or none!

    It is like finding out that a Nazi went on to become a revered member of the community after torturing and killing people without getting caught and everybody who knew him after he escaped the war tribunals just couldn’t believe he did it because he was “such a nice guy.”

    It does give one pause, but I can’t say that the story itself is lessened for me because of the despicable reality of the life of the man who wrote it.

    Perhaps “Little Tree” can be looked at more objectively as an interesting cultural artifact that shows many of the bizarre human paradoxes of racism, and other “isms” in the South through the story and reflections on the author’s life.

  11. Se li May 14, 2009 / 3:43 pm

    I am Cherokee and I did live in the Blue Ridge Mountains at a very young age until I grew into my late teens. KKK or not, Carter did capture the importance and strong ties of family among the Cherokee. It’s how we survived.
    Forget and forgive. And strive for peace.

  12. Boo February 18, 2011 / 7:36 pm

    Se li has just given the absolutely perfect response to this issue.
    Would that we all take it to heart.
    Thankyou Se Li!

  13. Dale April 26, 2011 / 3:10 pm

    I read this book many years ago, and even spoke with his wife about receiving the rights to adapt-just after she sold them to HBO…..i am pleased to see this topic under discussion-and think the conversation needs to go further and continue…… goes to show, sometimes with the individual gone, there are really only shades of gray when it comes to actions…..That said however, we cannot ignore, please, that the man did a significant amount of harm, created a significant amount of fear needlessly, perpetuated myths and lies-and enforced a rift between peoples that doesn’t need to exist. And the man also wrote this charming, educational, interesting work of fiction that captures a family and an ethos so well…..maybe quick to forgive, but to forget? No way………..Its too bad he had to lay false claims in order to get to the heart of his story….a complicated situation and backstory that adds a huge dimension to the novel, and should not be ignored. Yes, parts of the work are entirely fradulent, and I agree with Mr. Alexie and others, but I also believe there is a tremendous amount of teaching to happen because of the back story, not in spite of it. Information never harmed anyone, just the way it was used. Teach this book, but teach the author and his story as well. Racism is complicated, and so is the healing from it…….I do not wish to speak for the author’s intent, but I can use this information in a way that urges others forward in a positive manner rather than a divisive and dangerous one. The book remains on my bookshelf, as does the slightly bitter taste in my mouth by feeling “fooled” by the author, and a good teaching tool …. dont have to ignore the message because of the messenger……Thanks for hearing me out.

  14. Little Me October 11, 2011 / 10:47 am

    Let it go, everybody! Why hang on to this particular book? He uses ridiculous stereotypes and gets a lot of the Cherokee “facts” wrong. My problem is that currently it is treated as a (factual) biography, but it is just a fantasy of a guilty white man (his supposed Cherokee heritage has been disproved). I’d rather spend my time reading about the lives of Indians from ACTUAL INDIANS!!!!!! What do I need a white interpretation for?

  15. James E. Colby February 25, 2012 / 6:23 pm

    If you had mixed feelings about “The Education of Little Tree,” I think you should read this book: “The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction,” by Linda Gordon.

  16. Cindy July 1, 2012 / 12:08 pm

    I read The Education of Little Tree in the 1980’s long before the controversy surrounding it. It is a book that has a wonderful message and even though it is not an autobiography, I will keep it on my book shelf. I have had my grandchildren read this book because regardless of the author’s despicable past, it has a message that I want all generations to take heed to. Just my humble opinion. Thank you.

  17. Diane November 23, 2012 / 6:53 pm

    I am now convinced that this is an opportunity to offer the author the possibility of redemption….the book could continue to be published with a chapter about the controversy, the “facts” about the author and his history, or at least the story that is known to us…that it was written under an alias. There is so much to learn about prejudice, racism, about healing from the effects of prejudice, and forgiveness.
    May Asa Earl Carter be remembered as a man who wrote a lovely allegory based on a wisdom that he may have earned in his own life of being a man with Cherokee ancestry in a society that had no interest in facing its own prejudice, and chose to publish that book under another name, perhaps where he was free to tell the story he really wanted to tell before he died.

  18. Jeffrey E Bright, MSW August 23, 2013 / 2:01 pm

    thank you Madelaine. I am a retired Social Worker, worked with at-risk kids in N.E. NM, brought up in WW2 London’s East End. The similarities to place and predominant poverty in all it’s facets aided in my understandings of youth here and bleak aftermath of the Wild West culture. I do know prejudice. Half way through ‘Little Tree’, and really enjoying all of it’s symbolism, and I have to admit missing stereotypical slants completely, so enthralled was I, I stopped and researched. What a horrible man indeed! Were my thoughts, and the story was tainted from then on. Asa changed his name to Forrest to write and publish this lovely story, something most critics of this man’s grossness missed while writing off his offering he entitled ‘The Education of Little Tree’ … the education … Perhaps we too might be educated in seeing this book as a true American classic. Again, thank you Madelaine for your insightful comments and depth of understanding that release my earlier feelings about Little Tree as a story standing on it’s own merit, notwithstanding a hurricane of hate for the author blowing against it. And a story I will advocate along with some of my ‘kids’.

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