"The Education of Little Tree," the country's No. 1 nonfiction paperback bestseller -- purporting to be the childhood memoir of a Native American in Tennessee -- was denounced as a "hoax" yesterday by an Emory University historian.

Professor Dan T. Carter said the author of the heartwarming book was not an American Indian orphan named Forrest Carter but was instead Asa Earl Carter, a white supremacist from Alabama who once wrote these words for George Wallace: "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" The man calling himself Forrest Carter died in 1979.

"There's no question who this guy really was," Carter said in a telephone interview from Atlanta. "The new age guru was a gun-toting racist, and this book is a hoax." Carter said he discovered the deception while doing research for a book on Wallace.

What had previously been a publishing fairy tale -- neglected author's inspiring story rediscovered after his death by millions -- quickly began to resemble a nightmare.

Reports that Forrest Carter was once Asa Carter are at least 15 years old. In 1976, the New York Times printed a story that quoted several people as saying Asa Carter and Forrest Carter were the same person. But Carter denied the charges, and Eleanor Friede, Carter's editor at Delacorte Press, stood by him. Several months later, Delacorte published "Little Tree." It did not sell well and eventually went out of print. Carter died in 1979 in Abilene, Tex., where he lived.

In an interview yesterday, Eleanor Friede again stood by her author. She refused to admit Forrest was Asa, blaming the controversy on "a family mix-up."

"I do not know his past personal history," she said. "I can only speak for the time I knew him, and if such a transformation of character did occur, it would be a miracle."

Asa Carter's widow, India, could not be reached for comment. Friede said India Carter "doesn't feel comfortable using the telephone," but had faxed her a message saying she would not respond to "these diabolical charges."

Asa Carter's past was outlined in an Op-Ed piece in Friday's New York Times by Prof. Carter, who said he might be a distant relative.

Asa Carter was a leading advocate of segregation in Alabama in the 1950s. He formed a paramilitary unit of about 100 men known as the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy. He was arrested in 1957 in connection with a Klan shooting, but charges were dropped.

Carter also wrote speeches for Wallace, but he later ran for governor of Alabama against him, saying Wallace had become too liberal.

The book purports to be Forrest Carter's memoir of his days as the orphan Little Tree, who went to live with his Cherokee grandparents in Tennessee in the 1930s and learned to love the mountains and Indian ways. Its cover describes the book as "a true story."

Friede not only published the book the first time around, but she was also the one who set it on the path to its current prosperity. In the mid-1980s she sent the book to the University of New Mexico Press, which reissued it after submitting the book to two historians for review.

The book received little advance publicity, but enthusiastic readers spread the word. More than a half-million copies of "Little Tree" are in print. The story recounts the author's childhood during the Depression with his Cherokee grandparents, and has proven especially popular with environmentalists and new age enthusiasts.

In June, the book won the first Abby Award from the American Booksellers Association, given to a work that booksellers especially love selling. Neither has Hollywood missed out on the action: India Carter has received 23 offers from Hollywood producers in the past eight months.

Elizabeth Hadas, director of the University of New Mexico press, said she knew nothing about Carter's past when the book was published, but read of the controversy afterward in a scholarly journal. She said she did not plan to stop the printing of additional copies, or to change the book jacket description.

"I think the book has strong literary values, and my guess is there's quite a bit of truth in it," she said. "I don't know it's fiction. I don't know what it is."

There are several other books by Forrest Carter, including a novel that was made into the film "The Outlaw Josey Wales."

Lawrence Clayton, a dean at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, said he knew Carter for many years and learned about his segregationist past only after his death. He said he believes the author sincerely changed his attitudes.

"Carter created a fictitious life for himself and lived it," Clayton said. "In years here, he became Little Tree. I think he just turned his back on his earlier life."