Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Can a Man Really Change?

Gramma said when you come on something good, first thing to do is share it with whoever you can find; that way, the good spreads out where no telling it will go. Which is right.

I am a reader. I am not all that well read, but I am persistent. I am always reading a chapter book to my 2nd graders, almost always have a book on CD or tape going for my commute and a book on the night stand that I am reading. There are always a few in the cue under the night stand, recommendations of friends, something I have picked up at the book store, a book from the bargain rack that I may read on the chance that it might be gold and I can pass it on to a friend. I have read books from the Dollar Store that have made me seek out other books by the same author (and I pay dearly for these – far more than the dollar I shelled out for the first book).

I am not a particularly fast reader. Depending on the book and how into it I am, it may take me a month to finish. If I am obsessed and it is summer, it might take a week. I am jealous of folks who can down a book in a day or two. My brother John is like that. He probably averages two books a week. Once, years ago, my brother Dan was driving in downtown Chicago and he saw John walking down the street on his lunch break reading. His nose in a book, walking in the Loop in downtown Chicago, not looking where he was going, oblivious to any and everything around him. It’s a wonder he didn’t get hit by a car.

I am not a particularly good book critic. There are some best selling authors I can’t stand, some obscure authors I absolutely love. Why couldn’t I like Catcher in the Rye? Everybody else does? Whoever heard of Robert Helenga (Blues Lessons – my Dollar Store purchase in hardback – The Fall of a Sparrow, and The 16 Pleasures – around $15 a pop in paperback)?

There are books that I am passionate about; books I will read again and again. One, by Immaculee Ilibagiza called Left to Tell I read twice in a row – after getting over my tears from the first reading. Of course there are To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and a few other classics. I have read I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb four times and it is a “big fat chapter book” as my students would say.

There is no book I like more than The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter. I have read it no less than 8 times. And every time I read it I am so taken by it. I have had 28 student teachers and interns and I think I have given it to every one. When I ask my teacher friends if they have read it – if they say no, I give it to them. I gave a copy away this week to my good teaching buddy Chris who had not read it – yet.

When I go to the bookstore to get the book, which I do every year, I usually order two or three copies. Two for the intern/student teachers who pass through my life and one to replace my copy which I have inevitably given away since the last time I bought copies. Heidi called me the other day when I was in the bookstore and when I told her that I was picking up Little Tree she smirked. I don’t blame her. I am predictable that way. If you know me well, and you haven’t read this book, I will give it to you. Weird but true.

So, years ago when I asked my friend Alan Weider if he had read it, he was astonished that I had. “You don’t know about Asa Carter, do you?” he queried. Well, no I didn’t. “He’s a racist. He used to write speeches for George Wallace.”

No way. This book is just too good. It is the strongest anti-racist book I have ever read.

“Google him,” was Alan’s reply. You’ll see.

I did. It isn’t pretty.

Easter Procession In Segovia,

Prior to Little Tree, Carter was an opponent to the civil rights movement and helped to found a KKK group. He was known for his anti-Black and anti-Jewish views. He actually ran for police commissioner against Bull Connor. Connor was the guy who turned police dogs and fire hoses on Civil Rights activists in Birmingham. Known associates of Carters were convicted of extreme brutality against African Americans.

In the 1960’s Carter wrote speeches for George Wallace and is partially credited for Wallace’s slogan, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He was a bad man. Plane and simple. He spent the last part of his life with a different name, running from his past.

George Wallace

But the book Little Tree is too inspiring to have been written by someone impersonating a good man. The beauty of the lessons and the sympathy you feel for the characters are too clear and true to have been created by a man who hates people of color.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that people make a living by acting. Mel Gibson directed “The Passion of the Christ” but think of what a creep he is. But Carter wrote an enduring story of such beauty and brilliance about the dignity and worth of Native Americans that he had to have had some kind of transformation. At some part of his core, he became good. Even if it was just for a little while, Asa Carter became Forrest Carter, a writer who was able to outgrow his own racism and hatred and create these timeless, enchanting, admirable characters – more real than some real people I know.

All I can think is that something happened to change him. I haven’t been able to find out what. His biographical information is filled with his hatred, his cunning, his terrible deeds. But there has to be something missing from the record. There has to be more to him.

Because he left us with Little Tree.

It is the story of a five-year-old boy whose parents die and he ends up living with his elderly Native American grandparents deep in the Appalachian Mountains. While he lives with them, they teach him “the way”. It is not a code or a bunch of tricks of how to live like an Indian. It is a way of living in the world, of being a part of nature. In searching through the book for a passage or two to share, my mind keeps going back to “A Dangerous Adventure” in which Little Tree and Granpa are fishing for catfish and cross paths with a formidable creature…

This day Granpa was laying on the bank and had already pulled a catfish out of the water. I couldn’t find a fish hole, so I went a ways down the bank. I lay down and eased my hands into the water, feeling for a fish hole. I heard a sound right by me. It was a dry rustle that started slow and got faster until it made a whirring noise.

I turned my head toward the sound. It was a rattlesnake. He was coiled to strike, his head in the air, and looking down on me, not six inches from my face. I froze stiff and couldn’t move. He was bigger around than my leg and I could see ripples moving around under his dry skin. He was mad. Me and the snake stared at each other. He was flicking out his tongue-nearly in my face-and his eyes was slitted-red and mean… I knew he was about to strike me but I couldn’t move.

A shadow fell on the ground over me and the snake. I hadn’t heard him coming atall but I knew it was Grampa. Soft and easy, like he was remarking about the weather, Granpa said, “Don’t turn yer head. Don’t move, Little Tree. Don’t blink yer eyes.” Which I didn’t…

Then, of a sudden, Granpa’s big hand came between my face and the snake’s head. The hand stayed there. The rattler drew up higher. He begun to hiss and rattled a solid whirring sound. If Granpa had moved his hand… or flinched, the snake would have hit me square in the face. I knew it too.

But he didn’t…

Granpa took the snakebite that was meant for Little Tree. When the snake had his fangs deep into Granpa’s hand, Granpa squeezed it to death with his other. After they heard the crack of the snake’s backbone, Granpa pulled out his knife and cut himself where the snake had bitten him…

“Thankee, Granpa.” Granpa looked at me and grinned. He had blood smeared over his mouth and face.

“Helldamnfire!” Granpa said. “We showed that son of a bitch, didn’t we?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, feeling better about the whole thing. “We showed that son of a bitch.” Though I couldn’t recall as having much to do with the showing…

Granpa’s hand started to swell and he commented on how hot the weather was getting, “fer this time of year.” His face looked funny. Now his arm was turning blue.

“I’m going for Granma,” I said. I started off. Granpa looked after me and his eyes stared off, faraway.

“Reckin I’ll rest a spell,” he said, calm as syrup. “I’ll be along directly.”

Little Tree ran to get his Granma. When she got there she saved Granpa by capturing quail and using their splayed open bodies to draw out the venom. While it seemed as though Granpa might die, she and Little Tree lay naked next to him all night long to keep his body warm.

…I told her how it all happened, and that I reckined it was my fault for not watching. Granma said it wasn’t anybody’s fault, not even the rattlesnake’s. She said we wasn’t to place fault ner gain on anything that just happened. Which made me feel some better, but not much.

In this book, Carter deals with the very best of society and the very worst. Ignorance, intolerance, predjudice, pride, racism and materialsm, are all taken on as evils, yet these are the very characteristics with which Carter himself is described in the short biographies I have read about him. It might just be true that Little Tree can be appreciated all by itself despite the biography of Carter. I found this little blurb on Wikipedia.

Richard Friedenberg wrote and directed the 1997 film adaptation. He has defended the book, but not the author:

Mr. Friedenberg said what appealed to him about the book was that "the characters and milieu they were in represented everything that was good about America and everything that was bad." On the one hand, he said, the book dealt with the strength of the family and not necessarily with traditional families. On the other hand, he said, it dealt with ignorance and prejudice. Mr. Friedenberg said he found it perplexing and almost impossible to understand Mr. Carter's motives and literary ambitions.

Others cannot forgive Carter’s past. Oprah Winfry, who in 1994 endorsed Little Tree, subsequently removed it from her list of recommended book titles:

"I no longer—even though I had been moved by the story—felt the same about this book," Winfrey 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."

It could be that I am just a hypocrite. Maybe I’m blind. How can I hate prejudice so much and still embrace this work? I have to believe that, while Asa Carter never said he was sorry for his role in the segregationist movement, Forrest Carter's apology might just be in The Education of Little Tree. I like to think so. I would like to believe that a man can change.


Chris Hass said...

I read chapter one last night. I suspect I'll read chapter two tonight. I can't wait to see what happens. I was careful not to read any of the excepts you inserted into your post. I was afraid you were going to go and spoil something for me. I know you'll understand since you're the one who doesn't even like to read the little blurb on the backs of books.

I've heard Harper Lee was a pretty difficult person. I know this is far different from being a vile racist, but still - it was Harper Lee. How could someone create Atticus and Gem and Scout and be a jerk? A few years ago we bought my mom a copy of Mockingbird. It was a new biography of Harper Lee. I was careful not to read or even ask her about it. I want to believe Harper Lee must have been a kind person.

Famous author I can't stand - Kurt Vonnegut.

Famous books I can't finish (no matter how many times I try) - Catch 22, Great Expectations, Moby Dick.

Mamafamilias said...

I must read "Little Tree". I loved the movie. Now I must read the book.

I have to agree with Chris...after (having to) read Great Expectations in school, I have tried and tried to go back and read it again and I'm sorry, but I just can't do it.

Now, "A Tale of Two Cities" on the other hand......love it.

Ruth said...

You know, our brother John reads while driving too. I am sending you a book that I hope turns you on to a great medical writer, Oliver Sacks. A kindred spirit of yours - he also is a malignant melanoma survivor. Ruthie