Maps, Myths, and Mea Culpas

“It hit me right off. I says to myself, ‘That’s a big-city CRIMINAL.’ Mind ye,” Pine Billy said, “I didn’t say it to Smokehouse [the Sheriff]. I jest said it to m’self. But to Smokehouse I says, ‘Smokehouse, ye know I’m agin turning anybody in to the law…but big-city criminals is different, and that feller over there looks total suspicious to me.’…

Pine Billy continued, “Smokehouse said, ‘Where are ye from?’ The feller said he was from Chicargo. Smokehouse said he reckined that was all right, but fer the feller to git on out of the settlement, and the feller agreed that he would. Now in the meantime…” Pine Billy cocked his eyes around at Granpa and Granma “…in the meantime, I edged back behind the car and lettered out his tag plate. I pulled Smokehouse aside, and I told him, ‘He says he’s from Chicargo, but – he’s got a Illinoys tag on his car.’ Ol’ Smokehouse was on him like a bottle fly on syrup. He pulled that criminal out’n his car and stood him up aside of it, and asked him flat out… ‘If ye’re from Chicargo, what are ye doin’ with Illinoys tag on yer car?’ Smokehouse knowed he had him. It caught the criminal flat-footed; he didn’t know what to say; caught ’em in a barefaced lie, ye see. He tried to slick talk his way out’n it, but I’ll say this fer ol’ Smokehouse, he ain’t all that easy to slicker.”

I’m halfway through Asa Earl Carter’s The Education of Little Tree, the story of a young Indian boy raised by his Scots-Cherokee grandparents in 1930s hill-country Tennessee. Originally presented as an autobiography, later research shows that the story is a fabrication. Approached as a work of fiction, though, it’s still a beautiful, comical, engaging read. The book lovingly illustrates an Indian family’s life, the land they love, and the racial prejudice and ridicule they faced in the depression-era South. Many so-called “true stories” turn out to be tall tales. What makes this sympathetic portrait interesting is that it was written by a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Six years before the book’s publication, Carter ran for governor of Alabama on a White Supremacist platform. I’d like to think this book was his mea culpa, his work of penance, a plea for atonement, but nobody knows.

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