This book and I share a birth year (1984). Burns and I share our birth state, Georgia. She being born and raised in Commerce, Georgia (inspiration for the book’s Cold Sassy) and me being born in Atlanta and raised in a tee-tiny little South Georgia town called Thomasville. Commerce is only about an hour up I-85 from my current home in Atlanta. None of this matters too much except that reading this book felt like going home.
In 1906, Cold Sassy, Georgia is rocked by scandal. A prominent family’s matriarch (Miss Mattie Lou) has died and her widow, Rucker Blakeslee, elopes with a woman young enough to be his daughter a mere three weeks after his wife’s death. And frankly, he doesn’t give a damn (homage to another great Georgian novel/film). Rucker’s 14-year-old grandson and our narrator, Will Tweedy, sees it like this:
Nobody asked my opinion, but I had always admired Miss Love, with all that wavy brown hair piled atop her head, and that smiley, freckledy face and those friendly gray-blue eyes. She was a merry person, like Grandpa. Always wore big flowered hats and bright-colored dresses, never “quiet” clothes like nice ladies were supposed to wear on the street. I could see how Miss Love could cheer up a man whose wife was short of breath for four years, dying for ten days, and dead for three weeks.
For the next year, we follow Will Tweedy as he attempts to make sense from all the grown-ups gossiping, acting childish, setting societal rules he doesn’t understand, and even questioning the religion the town often uses as an excuse for their behavior. Cold Sassy Tree is a coming-of-age story for not just Will, but his whole family and their small town. Burns proves you’re never too old to grow-up!
For the first 100 pages, I was convinced this book might be the best Southern novel I had ever read. I wanted to go back in time to my Southern Lit class and reject Faulkner, Toomer, and Welty and to replace them with Burns. The last 100 pages solidified my desire and I can now proudly declare this my favorite Southern language novel of all-time. After all, the South really does have their own language and authors so often get it wrong.
Cold Sassy Tree is a character driven story and a fine one, at that. The character voices are so authentic that I associated them with members of my own family. Miss Mattie Lou and her desire to help others became my grandmother, Aunt Loma with her rebellious, outspoken ways and dreams bigger than small town life was a hybrid version of me and my Aunt Kathy, and Will’s Mama was almost a perfect copy of my own mother. And poor Miss Love, the Yankee transplant trying to get along with all those busy-body Southerners. All this made me realize just how little people have changed from 1906 – to 1984 – to 2012 and how fiercely people hold on to tradition and a certain way of life. Back home, we still consider people from the North Yankees (North being above Atlanta) and treat them as outsiders. My mom constantly berates me about my need to live ‘up North’ (20 minutes north of Atlanta proper) and the audacity to speak like a Yankee (she swears I’ve lost my accent).
What really shines in this novel is the relationships – especially between Will Tweedy and Grandpa Blakeslee. Rucker only had daughters so Will becomes his adopted son of sorts. Will idolizes his grandfather, yearns to learn the ways of the world from his 59 years of experience. Something about a grandparent-grandchild relationship is always so special and filled with so many lessons learned. I loved the quiet little moments where Will would be questioning life, God, the world and only feel comfortable enough to speak with his grandfather:
“How you go’n stand it, Grandpa? I mean goin’ home every night and she ain’t there.”
“Thet’s what I don’t know, son. Thet’s what I don’t know. Yore granny was –” He choked up again. When he could go on he stretched both arms down into the grave, dropped them, helpless-like, and said, “But do I got a choice, Will Tweedy? I got to stand it, ain’t I? Livin’ is like pourin’ water out of a tumbler into a dang Coca-Cola bottle. If’n you skeered you cain’t do it, you cain’t. If’n you say to yoreself, ‘By dang, I can do it!’ then, by dang, you won’t slosh a drop.’
Can’t you just hear them philosophizing? The dialect is pitch-perfect.
Will was such a charming narrator. I particularly loved that Burns allowed Will to think one thing, but say another. The reader was really allowed to gain a sense of his internal moral struggles. As his thoughts began to align with his actions more and more, you knew he was growing up, that he was changing into the man he would become. A perfect example of an author showing, not telling.
Before you think this novel has no flaws, there are a couple of troubling bits. I loved the beginning and ending dearly. And while the middle was still entertaining enough to keep me turning the pages, the story meandered and felt kind of loose, a little less polished. Also, I kind of twinged over Burns’ portrayal of the black/white relationships in Cold Sassy Tree. It’s obvious she loves her characters of both races, but I felt a bit of rose-colored glasses syndrome. At times, the separate but equal mentality she expressed seemed to come with softened edges, rainbows, and sunshine. I’ve thought a lot about this and have convinced myself she did this on purpose and wasn’t actually ignorantly obtuse about the reality of the situation. I think because her white characters are telling the story that she’s showing us how they perceived the situation. I have to believe if Loomis (husband of the Tweedy’s cook) was allowed to tell his side of things, the novel would have read much differently – I would have loved to read that book!
So I recommend this to anyone wanting a genuine Southern experience from the comfort of their own home. You’ll see our flaws, our triumphs, who we are and who we want to be. I’m going to be reading a Faulkner novel soon so I’m excited to compare the two experiences.