Today I will start with a book review I wrote for Cold Sassy Tree, a novel by Olive Ann Burns my students read this year.
Cold Sassy Tree's Southern Style
Within the Quiet Leaves of the Sassafras, Cold Sassy Tree is Anything but Cold.
Olive Ann Burns best seller Cold Sassy Tree is a novel for the ages. This labor of love is worth reading; every fantastic "suthern werd".
When Olive Ann Burns strayed from being a journalist/columnist to try her hand at fiction writing, she never imagined the success that would become Cold Sassy Tree. Set in southern Georgia as an adaptation of her own family history, this novel spins itself in and out of a timeless traditional family that is struggling to maintain its integrity while usurping the customs of the Confederate South.
Characters that Capture
Burns draws in her readers through two distinct characters that are as affable as they are adversarial. Meeting them is like looking into the future, or back in time, depending on which focus is in play as the two often seem as one spreading a massive generational gap. Will Tweedy, a fourteen-year-old boy trying to make his way to manhood, shows all the signs of making something of himself. He mourns the loss of his grandmother with admirable effort, loves a girl from the "wrong side of the tracks", watches his grandfather fall from grace by all traditional southern standards while holding his head high, and then buries the man he adores more than life itself. This coming of age story for him is wound up in an 8-month scandalous romance of the other major character in the book, Rucker Blakeslee, Will's well respected grandfather who owns the local country store in the small town of Cold Sassy, Georgia. Rucker Blakeslee is a feisty, belligerent, sharp-tongued southern man. He likes his corn bread fried and biscuits buttered, not to mention a tall glass of sweet milk on the side prepared by his wife, because that's cheaper than a housemaid. A swig of whiskey every day gets him going and he's only loved one woman until her death. When his wife passes, he shocks the town by ignoring the mourning expectations and marries the young and beautiful Ms. Love. It is this marriage and the reaction to it that sets the motion of Cold Sassy Tree.
Passion and Perseverance
Not only do the characters in this amazing novel shine, but moments of true passion and perseverance leap on to the literary forefront as themes to be "reckoned" with. Cold Sassy Tree is first and foremost a tender love story of one man's devotion to his former wife and his prurience with the new woman in his life. Readers are moved by the compassionate gestures of dedicated admiration Rucker Blakeslee shows his widow Mattie Lou and then learn to fall in love with his newly betrothed even though the marriage displaces all appropriate expectations of a widower and a newly wed. Only Burns could create this dynamic emotional moment amidst what seems to be completely unacceptable with her intricately woven tale of love, loss, and life. As noted by her principal character Blakeslee, "Well, good gosh a’mighty! She’s (Mattie Lou) dead as she’ll ever be, ain’t she? Well, ain’t she?" (Burns) readers begin to understand the real meaning of this literary work; acceptance above all else. This quote signifies not only the loss everyone feels at some time in their life, but the hurt, the anger, and the desire to let the dead be dead; life will move on. The concept of moving forward is often the most challenging part of love and Burns captures the essence of how difficult this is and teaches the reader how to face tomorrow anew.
Cold Sassy Commands Contemplation
Cold Sassy Tree is an unexpected gem amongst southern based novels. Its lively characters and loaded themes rival that of To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) or As I Lay Dying (Ernest Gaines) making itself a book to be read if one considers themselves "well-read". Cold Sassy brings to life every aspect of the deep south during the early 1900's and Burns leave no stone unturned when taking readers through this journey of a small town tucked beneath the branches of a sassafras tree. The only true regret reader's may feel when ending Cold Sassy Tree is simply that; it's over and one is not ready for the novel to end. Olive Ann Burns did write a sequel to this amazing story, Leavin' Cold Sassy, that follows Will Tweedy back to his southern roots in the small town now named Progressive City, but she sadly died before the novel could be finished. It's manuscript and notes were published as is, but the same southern flair and compelling characters drift in and out of the brief fifteen chapters still making Cold Sassy Tree one of the most beloved novels in literary history.