In the small town of Cold Sassy, GA, in the early 1900s, Rucker Blakeslee shocked and scandalized the town and his family by remarrying Miss Love Simpson just three weeks after his wife died. That was the worst of it, but added to the scandal were the facts that she was “nearly a Yankee” and half his age. Thereafter she was the main subject of gossip (as if the marriage was totally her fault) and could seem to do nothing right in their eyes. That’s the basic plot of Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns, but the story is told through the eyes of Rucker’s grandson, Will Tweedy, who is sympathetic with the couple, and whose teen-age perspective causes him to question things and not necessarily go along with the status quo.
I do generally like small-town Southern fiction, but it took me a long while to get into this one. I almost laid it aside many time but persevered because so many people told me they had liked it. A lot of the town gossip, prejudices, and family competition seemed mean-spirited; Will had a minor obsession with ladies’ bosoms (trying to catch a peek when his sister-in-law nursed her baby, noticing how Miss Love jiggled when she played the piano), there is a smattering of bad language and some faulty theology (I do understand this is not at all meant to be a Christian book, but if a writer is going to get into theology, then, yes, I am going to evaluate that). One example: when Will asks why we don’t get what we ask for in prayer even though Jesus said “Ask and ye shall receive,” his Grandpa says: “Maybe Jesus was talkin’ in His sleep, son, or folks heard Him wrong. Or maybe them disciples tryin’ to start a church thought everybody would join up if’n they said Jesus Christ would give the Garden a-Eden to anybody believed He was the son a-God and like thet” (p. 98). He does decide to “study on this some more” and later decides that Jesus may not give exactly what you ask (healing, a new job, etc.), but He will give you the grace to deal with whatever He allows, which is closer to the truth. But perhaps Rucker’s theological convolutions were meant as just another window into a personality that wants its own way and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, which is manifested in various ways throughout the book.
I did enjoy Will’s camping trip. I loved the way Will’s innocent but unwise foray into impending doom on the train tracks was told. By the end of the book I grew to like the relationship Will had with his grandfather and the growing relationship between Rucker and Love from a marriage of convenience to a true, deep love. I liked that everything came more or less right in the end though I was sorry for the tragedy that led to it.
One of my favorite lines was when Will was pondering being in mourning (wearing a black armband, not being able to do anything fun) over the death of his grandmother as opposed to what it meant to actually mourn for her: “But to mourn, that’s different. To mourn is to be eaten alive with homesickness for the person” (p. 56). If you’ve ever mourned anyone you loved, I’m sure you can sympathize with that feeling.
My other favorite line was more humorous. When Miss Love models some driving attire in the store window because Rucker won’t buy a mannequin, Will’s Aunt “Loma was jealous. The store window being like a little stage and her having taken elocution, she considered herself the only person in Cold Sassy qualified to act like a dummy” (p. 282).
I went online looking for some more insight into the book, and these SparkNotes helped (warning: they do contain spoilers to the plot since they’re discussing it more in depth). It is a mark of good writing that I’m still thinking about the book days later and discovering angles, connections, and layers that I’d missed at first, but it still won’t go down as one of my favorites.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)