A Hoax With a Heartbreak : Books: Just who is the author of the best-selling "The Education of Little Tree," the book that moved the reading public?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"It's fairly sickening. Everybody loved it. You wanted it to be true because it was so sweet and it left you feeling hopeful."

--Sarah McCraw, 26, of New York

She was talking about "The Education of Little Tree," an autobiography that touched its readers so deeply that it recently jumped to the top of the New York Times best seller list largely by word of mouth.

Old and young found a personal message in the re-released narrative of a Cherokee boy who goes to live with his Indian grandparents and learns to love nature and the Indian way. "Little Tree" was even poised for a movie sale.

But last week's news that author Forrest Carter, who died in 1979, was actually Asa (Ace) Carter, a white supremacist who wrote speeches for former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace and worked for the Ku Klux Klan as a consultant, left the book world and its legions of readers stunned.

Even though the accusation--which was written by a history professor for the New York Times Op-Ed page--was denied by a spokeswoman for Carter's reclusive widow, India Carter, the double-identity allegation, which had been reported when the book was first published 15 years ago without getting much attention, was suddenly getting a lot of attention.

America's booksellers, who in June awarded the book a first-time Abby Prize for its untarnished human values and environmental affirmations, were shocked.

"In a way, it's sickening, but it's so ironic," said Doug Dutton, owner of Dutton's Books. "The irony is it seemed to be one of these books that fit everyone's definition of multi-culturalism. It was a politically correct book to read."

Several studios that had been competing for movie rights also seem to be having second thoughts.

The Guber-Peters Co. (through Columbia Pictures) and 20th Century Fox Film Corp. had been mentioned previously in the trade press as bidders. But a Columbia spokesman on Friday denied that there ever had been any interest.

And Bernard Schwartz, the independent producer involved in the Fox bid, said he was disappointed because "the story is such a lovely one. It's a shocking revelation, so much so that we're giving the idea of a movie a long, hard look."

Hoaxes are not uncommon in the publishing industry, which relies on authors to be truthful.

"If something smells bad and is patently a concoction, more often than not we can pick up on this," says James O. Wade, vice president and executive editor of Crown Publishers Inc. "But we're human. We can be fooled."

The University of New Mexico Press has sold half a million copies of "Little Tree," with another 500,000 copies on the way--each with a cover that says "A True Story by Forrest Carter." University marketing director Peter Moulson was distressed but philosophical. "The question we have to ask is: Was the book that was beautiful and superb yesterday now horrible and awful? The book hasn't changed."

Some readers agree with him. Lia Levin, a Los Angeles musician who has recommended "Little Tree" to many people, says she will still give it to her grandson.

"It is still beautiful," she said. "Beethoven wrote some sublime music, and he was cantankerous and unpleasant to people. I don't see it as a hoax or cheating--if he could actually write a book this beautiful, it actually existed in his mind. The person is gone and the book stays and will influence many generations."

But others were not so forgiving.

And at Emory University, the phone didn't stop ringing for Dan Carter, the history professor who wrote the piece for the New York Times. "I've gotten calls all day from people who are heartbroken," he said Friday. "People are going to feel betrayed, and they shouldn't blame themselves. They were betrayed."

Carter--who says he might be distantly related to Forrest Carter--says that he has documentation to prove his allegations but that he isn't ready to make it public. However, he insists that "there's no question of who the guy really was--he was a gun-toting racist."

So who was Forrest Carter?

His widow, through a spokeswoman, insists that Asa and Forrest were separate people.

But the author's brother, Doug Carter, told the Birmingham Post-Herald that Asa Carter wrote under the pen name "Forrest Carter" because "he was trying to separate the political writer from the creative novel writing."

Long-time friends in Montgomery, who had known Asa Carter during the 1950s and '60s, also believe Forrest and Asa were the same man.

Says John Pemberton, a former secretary of the Alabama House of Representatives: "I'll say this about Asa Carter--he was intelligent, he knew how to write and was a good speech writer. The man was talented. He just pulled up and left Montgomery in the latter part of the '60s and I don't know what happened to him."

Wayne Greenhaw, a Montgomery journalist, knew Asa Carter during his Montgomery days. "The guy was a hell of a writer, and he was talking even back then about doing novels. ("Little Tree") should have been on the fiction list, not the non-fiction list."

Greenhaw next heard of Carter in 1974 when he reviewed a book called "Gone to Texas" by Forrest Carter. "The next week I was having lunch downtown and someone said: 'Old Asa's fooled you, too. You know Asa Carter wrote that book you reviewed.' "

"Gone to Texas" became a Clint Eastwood movie called "The Outlaw Josie Wales."

"The next thing we knew, Ace was on television, being interviewed by Barbara Walters on the 'Today Show' " as Forrest Carter, said Greenhaw.

It was Greenhaw, in 1976, who wrote a story for both his newspaper, the Alabama Journal, and for the New York Times, saying Forrest Carter was the same Asa Carter who had written the famed "Segregation Now . . . Segregation Forever" speech for George Wallace.

Greenhaw's story then brought a denial from Eleanor Friede, Carter's literary agent. Friede, who now lives in Charlottesville, Va., and represents India Carter, still maintains that the man she knew as Forrest "couldn't have been a segregationist."

"The story had no effect at all," said Greenhaw.

It wasn't until the recent surprise success of "Little Tree"--published in 1976, re-released in 1986 and only recently attaining nationwide popularity--that the book world took interest in Forrest Carter's true identity.

It was a story last week in USA Today saluting "Little Tree" as a surprise best seller that spurred historian Dan Carter into action.

This time around, the story got attention.

Times staff writers Beverly Beyette and David Fox contributed to this report.

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