This is an essay by Elizabeth Simons.
Gazing winsomely from the cover of Growing Up, Russell Baker has an air of self-confidence with just a bit of vulnerability peeking through. Sporting his best suit and tie, with his hair slicked back and severely parted, he looks the picture of quintessential boyhood. The twinkle in his eye invites you to spin your yarns, and the truth will be sorted out later.
In this Pulitzer-prize-winning autobiography, Russell tells the story of his life from early boyhood until he gets married. While it is his story, he lets the reader know that if it hadn’t been for his indomitable mother, he might not have achieved the success that led him to win not one but two Pulitzer prizes.
Equally important in his life was his Uncle Harold, who told stories with just the right amount of embellishment to make even the dullest tale interesting. He was continually admonished for telling lies, but Russell knew that the imagination that fueled Uncle Harold’s stories made life more enjoyable. Russell soon realizes that some of the facts came from whole cloth, but that didn’t take away from the delight he experienced when listening to his uncle. He says:
I began to detect a hidden boy, in spirit not too different from myself, though with a love for mischief which had been subdued in me by too much melancholy striving to satisfy my mother’s notions of manhood.
Russell’s mother, Lucy Elizabeth Baker, had had her share of hardship, losing her father at an early age and then her husband when he was only 33, leaving her with three small children to raise. She pinned her hopes on Russell, the eldest, hoping to shape him into a decent model of manhood. While I’m certain this put an enormous amount of pressure on the young boy, he rose to the occasion with courage and humor. His love of words shaped the world around him, and his reflections are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always respectful and loving towards his mo
ther.Her fighting spirit begins and ends the book.
Living across the street from his grandmother, Russell describes an idyllic early boyhood, which reminded me of the slow, dreamlike prose in James Agee’s A Death in the Family, a semi-autobiographic third-person story of the author’s boyhood and coming of age when his father died at an early age.
Russell describes the family gathering on his grandmother’s front porch after supper, a command performance for Ida Rebecca’s brood of 12 children and their families, and notes the conversations are timeless, lingering in the sleepy air so that they could be plucked and reiterated for the hundredth time.
Russell is a humorist, and his description of the local bootlegger’s funeral had me laughing out loud. His Uncle Etch had a funeral parlor, and one of his suppliers delivered a clear glass coffin, telling the undertaker that this was the latest fashion in interment. However, its cost was prohibitive, and it lay there until Sam Reever died. Having become somewhat prosperous from moonshine, his widow requested nothing but the best for Sam, and buried him in the glass coffin. Russell notes:
The widow would have nothing else. Maybe it was the gasket sealing the glass that sold her on it. Maybe she saw the esthetic beauty of burying Sam in the symbol of his profession. Like most country bootleggers, Sam bottled his moonshine in canning jars. When they took him to the graveyard, the mourners approved of the fitting way in which Liz, as a grace not to his life, had him buried in the fanciest Mason jar ever sold in Loudoun County.
Baker’s honest and gentle story reminds me of another biography about a boy’s coming of age, The Education of Little Tree, by Forrest Carter (aka Asa Earl Carter). Told from the boy’s point of view, it’s the story of a child called Little Tree who is orphaned at the age of five and goes to live with his Cherokee grandparents until the age of 10, who teach not only about the flora and fauna in their isolated cabin in the mountains, but about integrity and honesty.
The two books initially seem similar. Young boy loses father at an early age and is taught the ways of the world by a determined parent. Russell Baker grows up to be a journalist, always thoughtful, always aware of the world around him, the quintessential symbol of manhood his mother had hoped he would be. After Little Tree’s beloved Grandpa dies, the young man helps bury the old man with dignity and honor.
Forrest Carter’s depiction of Little Tree seems initially honest. Little Tree’s grandparents are always truthful, always loving, always respectful of the world of animals and plants surrounding their idyllic mountain home. They teach Little Tree the ways of the Cherokee, walking a path that has reverence for the earth and all that is in it. Little Tree learns homely truths about helping others and how to respond to ridicule with dignity. Carter’s language is that of a small boy, and he tells the tale with words a small boy would use.
But while Russell Baker’s story is a fairly accurate recounting of his life, with pictures and anecdotes from many who touched his life, Forrest Carter’s book takes a turn that throws it into controversy. Supposedly an autobiography, the story of a young boy who comes of age by learning the ways of the Cherokee, readers discover that the book’s author, Asa Earl Carter, was a white supremacist who was also a speech writer for Alabama Governor George Wallace. As cited by Dave Randall in The Independent article “The tall tale of Little Tree and the Cherokee who was really a Klansman,” Carter purportedly wrote the infamous words, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
So what does this say about the book? About its author? Many grew to love The Education of Little Tree. Teachers loved to include it as a must-read for young adults. It is a truly touching book, and its words have a remarkable ring of truth. In trying to decipher how a white supremacist could write such an all-embracing book, one trips over reality. Some speculate that Carter had a change of heart, that he wrote the book as an act of redemption, publishing a book that would stand the test of time and reveal that all people are created equal. Even if he hadn’t been raised by Cherokee grandparents, he was able to tell a story that brought the old and beautiful ways to life.
This would be remarkable story in and of itself, but some say Carter had no such change of heart, saying he continued to be a supremacist until his death in 1979. As award-winning author Sherman Alexie stated,
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.
What a conundrum. I recently picked up Little Tree, and the few chapters I read were still enchanting, even after knowing that most of the Cherokee ways Carter wrote about were untrue, and knowing that Carter was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Many young readers have been deeply touched by the book. Its inaccuracies don’t seem ridiculous. A young boy could have been raised by two such loving grandparents, and be inspired by the path they took. While one could argue that the book might be considered somewhat condescending, I didn’t really see it, as much as I tried to find passages that corroborated my suspicions.
Russell Baker wrote a book that rings with truth, and since its publication in 1982 there have been no voices to dispute that honesty. Asa Carter wrote a book that also seemingly rings with truth, but whose content has been discredited by many, including members of the Cherokee Nation. Each could be called a memoir. Each is written in the first person. But while one could substantiate its facts, the other manipulates the emotions of a gullible readership. These chapters are not the embellished stories of a beloved Uncle Harold, but an unscrupulous deception.
If memoirs are most often fictionalized truth, perhaps Little Tree ought to be a genre in its own right: Deceitful fiction.
Elizabeth Simons is an editor by nature and writer by heart. She was born in Austria and grew up in a bilingual household in mid-Missouri. She has a B.S. in English Education from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Hungarian was her first language, but she fell in love with English in the first grade. She wrote her first short story at age nine, and her first poem at age eleven. She’s had many occupations, including news reporter, freelance writer, researcher, editor, and teacher. In 2003 she wrote a correspondence course on creative writing for young adults, and she’s currently re-writing her first novel. Elizabeth has an editing business, Prosecraft Editing Services, where she polishes articles and manuscripts until they shine.