One of the biggest literary stings since the Hitler diaries has come to light. Last year the respected US publishers Simon & Schuster paid £330,000 to the grandson of mafia boss Carlo Gambino for an insider's account of the innermost workings of the mob. Last week the man who said he was Michael Gambino turned out to be a small-time Las Vegas crook with a lively imagination. Writs and red faces all round.
Literary fakes have a long pedigree, from William Ireland's "Shakespeare" plays, to Carrying a Gun for Al Capone (1930), a gangster's confession whose sales were unaffected by the subsequent revelation that its author was a German-Dutch misfit who had never even set foot in Chicago. But the strangest of them all, in many ways, is the story of a book called The Education of Little Tree, written in the Seventies and still stirring controversy today.
These are the memoirs of an orphaned Cherokee Indian boy, telling of his upbringing in rural Tennessee with his Grandma Bonnie Bee and Grandpa Wales. The book tells how these Native American paragons raised him in the old ways, taught him to hunt and trap and how to be in tune with nature. And, being versatile old folks, they also brought him up to love the works of, as he put it, "Mr Shakespeare".
Thus tutored, the autobiography claims, Little Tree went out into the world and became a cowboy and official storyteller in council to the Cherokee nation. In 1976, under his adult name, Forrest Carter, Little Tree poured this moving life story into a book.
It became a cult hit, hailed as a classic of Native American literature. Carter was interviewed by Barbara Walters on television, travelled, wrote and worked on film projects. Then, in 1979, he got into a fistfight in Abilene, Texas, and died from his injuries. He was remembered as the Cherokee author who gave his royalties to tribal causes.
Word of mouth about Little Tree kept on growing. Reissued as a paperback, it took off and became the hit of 1991. USA Today called it "one of publishing's sweetest stories", and Entertainment Weekly wrote: "Every once in a while a book makes its way unheralded to the hearts and minds of readers." By October that year, it was number one on the New York Times bestsellers list, Hollywood was panting for the film rights, and the American Booksellers Association made it Book of the Year.
Then the truth came out. The author was neither an orphan, nor was he raised by his grandparents in Tennessee, and nor was he any more than very distantly Cherokee. He was Asa Earl Carter, known as "Ace", and had been brought up by his parents, Ralph and Hermione, in the white, middle-class surroundings of Anniston, Alabama. His grandmother, who had no Indian blood, had died before he was born, and the Cherokee nation did not receive as much as a cent in royalties.
It got worse. For Asa Carter was, in reality, a former white supremacist rabble-rouser and Ku Klux Klansman, whose followers stoned a black student, assaulted the singer Nat King Cole, beat up a civil rights activist and stabbed his wife, and castrated a black handyman. Ace was also an ex-speechwriter for George Wallace, and penned the Alabama governor's famous "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation for ever!" diatribe. So rabid were Carter's views that, in 1970, when he decided that Wallace had gone soft on communists and race, he ran against him in a Democratic primary. Little Tree, it seems, was really Big Bigot. When the truth came out, the book was swiftly moved from the list of non-fiction bestsellers to the fiction charts, and the publishers were forced to erase the line "a true story" from the cover.
But people kept on buying the book, and it has many defenders to this day. Not even its fiercest critics doubt that Little Tree is a powerful and well-written story by an author whose first book, published in 1973, was later filmed as The Outlaw Josey Wales with Clint Eastwood. Dee Brown, the author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, said: "If people like the book, what does it matter who the author is? Most non-fiction books are part fiction."
But the mystery of Forrest Carter remains. Was he a racist who broke with his old life and privately reinvented himself as a touchy-feely writer relating old family legends? Was he, as his brother Doug claimed, spinning yarns to raise money for a political comeback? Was he a con-man who found a rich vein to mine? And does it, if the words on the page ring true, matter what he was?
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