May 29, 2009

 

A commemoration and a little education

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This week marked the 179th anniversary of the U.S. Congress' passage and President Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson's signing of the Indian Removal Act. No doubt a watershed event in world history, the document is but a small part of one of the top two heinous things that various Eurotrash ancestors perpetrated on this continent. The other was of course the importation of free labor from another continent. While Internetting about on the subject I found this, the last article of the act, to be the most telling of the intent behind it:
SEC. 7. And be it further enacted, That it shall and may be lawful for the President to have the same superintendence and care over any tribe or nation in the country to which they may remove, as contemplated by this act, that he is now authorized to have over them at their present places of residence.

In other words, "We reserve the right to screw you in perpetuity."

Coincidently enough (or not so much for you coinkydink naysayers), I began to reread one of my favorite books, The Education Of Little Tree on the anniversary of the act's passage. The book tells the story of an orphaned Cherokee boy who is raised by his grandparents in the hills of east Tennessee (some Cherokee remained in the east after the Trail Of Tears forced removal in 1838). It is a simple and beautiful piece of writing that has brought me joy and tears with every reading. I began reading it aloud to Max, even though I know that he is not paying attention most of the time. But I'll continue doing so because every once in a while he will pause in his preoccupied play and repeat something I just read. I hope that he and I will read this book several more times in the years ahead.

There is considerable scandal regarding the book and its author, Asa Earl Carter, who also wrote The Outlaw Josey Wales using the pen name Forrest Carter. He presented Little Tree as an autobiographical account of his childhood, and it was later discovered that the telling was fictional. But even more shocking was the revelation that Carter had been an active white supremacist, even assigned credit (blame) as the writer of Alabama Governor George Wallace's famous 1963 inaugural speech that contained the line "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Oprah (you know, Winfrey), in a predictable move of PC BS, removed the book from her Book Club list after realizing the author's notorious past. In spite of this I take the position of defender of the book, though of course not the author's apparent worldview.

Others also take a "shit sure grows some beautiful roses" approach. New York Times Book Review critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. argued that The Education Of Little Tree can be appreciated for its message of tolerance and other qualities despite the biography of its creator. Despite Carter being a cultural impersonator, is his approach (and skill) much different from Mark Twain's? I hope that in the event of my own literary breakthrough the likelihood that others think I'm an asshole will not diminish the effects of my astounding prose.

Richard Friedenberg, screenwriter and director of the 1997 film adaptation of the book, said what appealed to him was that "the characters and milieu they were in represented everything that was good about America and everything that was bad." He said the book dealt well with the strength of a non-traditional family facing ignorance and prejudice. Friedenberg said that, given Carter's past history, he found it perplexing and almost impossible to understand the author's motives and literary ambitions, but added that he believed that "his apology was in his literature," with the handful of blacks and Jews in his four books depicted sympathetically, and "the bad guys are almost, without fail, rich whites, politicians and phony preachers."

If I have any criticism of the book, it is a small one: Carter presents the five-year-old Little Tree as a bit too wise beyond his years, and readers will have to suspend disbelief accordingly. In learning of the horrible fate of his Cherokee ancestors in the forced march west in 1838, he all-too-astutely decries the now common term "Trail Of Tears" as romantic nonsense:
"A death march is not romantic. You cannot write poetry about the death-stiffened baby in his mother's arms, staring at the jolting sky with eyes that will not close, while his mother walks."
And though his intent was to present the work, albeit falsely, as an actual memoir, it falls in line with what I think any author would project about their five-year-old self, or at least how one would remember being five. The first-person narrative of the little boy brings us along in his "education," and throughout the book the device provides both humor and sorrow, seen both with our knowledge yet through such innocent eyes. It also allows Carter's possibly reconstructed sympathies to shine through. As author Lionel Trilling put it, "Now and then it is possible to observe the moral life in process of revising itself."

Alas, here I delve in much further than Max will, if at all, for years to come, and he may come to a different conclusion at that. I highly recommend the book, with the first two paragraphs of page 15 being worth the price.
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Comments:
I read his sequel to Outlaw, "The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales" or some such. While it wasn't a great story it was extremely sympathetic to the Sioux and highly critical of rape. I'll try to scare up a copy of this one.
 
Shouldn't be too hard for you, Joe - UNM Press owns the rights.
 
ZZZAAAPPPP! I suddenly realize that we discussed this briefly in Editing class this past semester. I guess I can expect it to come up again when I take Publishing.
 
There could be volumes written about how we have screwed over the red man. In Michigan, they are getting back at us by rigging the games in the casinos that they own! ;).
 
BTW, There is another, more uplifting book about a young indian boy that you may want to read to Max. It is called "Paddle to the Sea" by Holling C. Holling. It also is a wonderful geography lesson on the Great Lakes.
 
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