Saturday, December 12, 2009
"THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE:" A Reflection
“The Education of Little Tree” (1976) is one of the most notorious of the faux Indian identity books but I had not read the book (still haven’t) and just saw the movie last night. The movie the night before was “Gran Torino” about a cranky old white man who hates minorities. I had not understood the connection between the two when I started reflecting on them in my attempts to get a good grip on the psychological and religious scheme of analysis used by Thomas Moore and James Hillman. Their system is derived in part from Jung and works as interacting binaries: sometimes male and female, sometimes dark and light, sometimes sadistic and masochistic, sometimes as senex and puer (which is roughly old and young), and then good and bad. The key is INTERACTING.
“The Education of Little Tree,” the movie (the book was published in 1997), is a cross between Hallmark Hall of Fame and “Walton’s Mountain”. This is because the director Richard Freidenberg was indeed a writer and director for the shmaltzy Hallmark series and Earl Hamner, Jr., who adapted the book for the screen is the original “John Boy,” who created “Walton’s Mountain.” What they ended up with is more of a picture book than a movie. The images of the Appalachians are stunningly beautiful. Outside of that, Little Tree briefly experiences a government Indian residential school with a check list of horrors. The movie has a PG rating because of “traditional discipline,” i.e. the obligatory cute but deprived little girl gets whipped with a belt and Little Tree gets put into solitary confinement. The key to Asa Carter’s thinking is quite direct: poor whites are like Native Americans in their virtuous instincts drawn from the land while the government, like every authority figure, is fat and punishing.
Part of this underdog thinking is easily traced to the South where Asa Carter, aligned with George Wallace and actually ghost writing his speeches, thought that the original KKK had gone soft, so organized a more potent sub-category that wore gray sheets because they stood for the Confederacy. This group was not soft: they castrated a black man, randomly chosen to be an example. Carter was not with them at the time. In fact, things got out of hand and Wallace went out of power so Carter departed the context, transferring his loyalties to the American West where (as illustrated by “Firefly”) the Confederate losers and raiders (like the Conrad brothers who settled the country where I am) used their skills to be outlaws. Thus, Carter’s other big selling book was “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Clint Eastwood took a liking to it and made the movie. Chief Dan George and Will Sampson are the representative Indians.
Peter Kaufman, a brainy U of Chicago/Harvard writer, was supposed to be the director but wasn’t tough enough for Eastwood, who took over. (Kaufman was at the heart of development for the Indiana Jones series, then worked on a Star Trek movie, and later made a movie called “Henry & June,” partly because of friendship with Anais Nin.) Eastwood’s own scripts since then have centered on the same vengeance-for-loss themes. (I haven’t seen “Josey Wales.” There’s always a lot of catching up to do.)
“Gran Torino,” written by Eastwood, is about another war survivor, this time Korea where he committed an unforgivable act. Now he is an aged widower in a neighborhood populated by Hmong, pushed out of Vietnam by that later war. A mediator and commentator is the local priest since the unifying umbrella is the Catholic religion. Now the plot has slipped from vengeance to atonement and the Indians are Asian. (Blacks don’t come off so well, evidently because they have no math skills.) The main diff between vengeance and atonement seems to be that the motive for the latter is idealistic (protecting his new friends from their evil relatives) and results in the death of the hero, who talks racism but doesn’t act it out.
These plots and their dynamics are beloved by much of the population of this country, which is why both movies and books earn pots and pots of money. “The Education of Little Tree,” despite being mauled by critics, continues to make millions for the University of New Mexico Press, which now owns the rights and continues to publish the book as fiction. The two best articles that I found about Asa Carter are Alan Barra’s essay in Salon.com in 2001 and a New York Times article by Dan T. Carter in 1991. Carter, who may be a distant relative, was “outing” Asa. Barra’s piece is more reflective. He suggests that the enormous financial success of “Little Tree” is what led to the whole Native American Renaissance of literature, which had an Icarus-like arc of success over ten years or so. Ironically, no NA author grabbed the heart strings of book-buying and movie-going America like this black-hearted racist hooked on violence. He also suggests that Carter’s “arrow” pointed the way for Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.”
In a time when our president accepts the Nobel Peace Prize directly after escalating war, we need ways of sorting moral confusion. For those who choose the Victorian prettifying and sentimentalizing approach to Christmas and ignore the persecution of Jews and Herod’s slaughter of babies, see the movie of “Little Tree” and enjoy the cookie face of the little boy as he does what is expected of him and his three mentors hug each other. At least there are no guns: the deaths are natural.
For those who’d like to have something a little more complex to think about, try “Gran Torino” where the sentimentality is reserved for Detroit cars. Eastwood is the rotten guy who can’t even stand his own family (and no wonder) but he has a heart of gold and works by opposites, affectionately maligning his barber and friends because that’s the “man thing” to do. He has a manly weapon (old-fashioned rifle) while the bad guys have outlawed machine guns. Perhaps there’s something here about the transition from war to civil disorder (terrorism).
What I’m after is the central principle that being “too goody-goody” and too confident of one’s deservingness in the world, to the point of taking whatever one wants by force, is an effective way of inviting evil and tragedy. But that within evil and tragedy lie forces for good.