The book purports to be the memoir of a half Cherokee boy raised by his grandparents during the Great Depression, but in an October 4, 1991 New York Times article, Dan Carter exposed the author of the book as a racist whose real name was Asa Earl Carter. Asa Carter wrote Alabama Governor George Wallace’s notorious 1963 speech which ended, “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.”
A number of fake memoirs have been exposed in recent years. They include A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones and two holocaust memoirs: Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years by Misha Defonseca and Fragments: Memories of a Childhood (1939-1948) by Benjamin Wilkomirski. Many of these authors had their books pulled by their publishers and were publicly humiliated, in James Frey’s case on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Forrest Carter suffered no consequences from his fraud, in part because he died before he was exposed. (A 1976 article in the New York Times showed the parallels between Forrest Carter and Asa Carter but was not definitive). Even though Carter has been exposed as a racist, the University of New Mexico continues to reprint The Education of Little Tree.
The book was made into a film in 1997, six years after it was exposed as a hoax. Film critic, Roger Ebert, rated the movie highly. While he notes the author’s racist background, he states on rogerebert.com, “Anyone can find redemption,” suggesting as others have that Carter experienced a transformation during the latter part of his life.
Regardless of whether or not Carter changed at the end of his life, he presented his book to his literary agent and to the public as fact when it was fiction. It also turns out that the Cherokee words in the book were made up. Furthermore, some Native American scholars say the book stereotypes natives.
In spite of all of the above, the book is poignant and well written. As fiction it deserves a place in proximity to the best coming of age novels—The Yearling, Old Yeller, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and To Kill a Mockingbird. When it was first published in 1976, major publications like the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly rated it highly. In 1991 it won the first ever American Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award (ABBY).
Because of its literary quality and ongoing success, The Education of Little Tree holds a unique position among faux memoirs. There is no definitive reason why the book has not met the same fate as other fictional memoirs. In any event, it is a book that collectors—collectors of children’s classics, first editions, Native-American related fiction, Forrest Carter, Tennessee related books, fiction about the Great Depression, movie themed books and literary hoaxes—should not ignore.