Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

Feb 29, 2020

Just a heads up: In the course of this review, I mention a couple of things that might be considered spoilers, so continue at your own risk.

When I was a kid, I can remember seeing both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Cold Sassy Tree on our bookshelves. Not knowing anything about either of them, I kind of thought of them as the same book--probably because they both had the word "tree" in their titles.

As an adult, I eventually picked up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn almost ten years ago, and I fell in love with everything about it. But Cold Sassy Tree remained unread, even though it seemed to get tossed around quite often as a suggestion at various book clubs over the years. It finally landed when my book club planned out our reading for 2020 and voted to read it in February for the romance genre.

And surprisingly, even though the protagonists, storylines, and settings are markedly different between the two books, there was something about the writing that actually did end up reminding me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Maybe it was just all in my head from my association with the two books in my childhood, but a certain quality under the surface seemed to resonate in each of these two books. Maybe it is just that both of them seem to exude that sharp and vibrant writing style that marks them as a modern classic. (Other books that have a similar feeling to me: Crossing to Safety, To Kill a Mockingbird, and East of Eden.)

The story is told from the 14-year-old perspective of Will Tweety in 1906. He lives in the town of Cold Sassy, Georgia with his mother, father, sister, grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, and cousin. His grandfather, E. Rucker Blakeslee, owns the general store and is well respected in the community.

That is, well respected until his wife, Mattie Lou, passes away and, not three weeks after her funeral, he elopes with the milliner, Miss Love Simpson. Mary Willis and Loma (Will's mother and aunt) are so mortified and ashamed of their father. They'll have absolutely nothing to do with Miss Love.

But Will likes her. She is kind and young (more than 20 years Mr. Blakeslee's junior), and so pretty. Ostracized from the rest of the town, she takes Will into her confidence, explaining that the marriage was really a business arrangement. Mr. Blakeslee gets a housekeeper, and she gets deeded the house and the furniture after his death.

But regardless of what it started out as, it is soon clear to Will that his grandfather has strong feelings for Miss Love, and Miss Love is slowly but surely reciprocating.

I don't know what I was expecting exactly, but this story unfolded in the most surprising way. Remember, it was told through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy; and while I didn't always enjoy being in the head of said 14-year-old (ahem, puberty), I have to admit that it cast the story in an interesting and compelling light. It felt so authentic and real that I couldn't quite fathom how a 60-year-old woman had written it.

Speaking of which, I enjoyed the writing style so much that I looked up Olive Ann Burns after I was finished to see what else she had written. Tragically, much like Harper Lee, it looks as though she was a one-book wonder. But I can't help but think that if her one and only book was this good, imagine what else she might have produced.

One of my favorite characters was Mr. Blakeslee. I loved the way he pushed against social constructs and laid aside conventionality in favor of what he deemed was right or proper . . . or just what he selfishly wanted. For example, when Miss Love is dismissed from being the Methodist pianist, he sees it as an opportunity to have a good time, just the two of them, singing and preaching together. (His religious views were rather unorthodox as well, but I loved them.) At another point, after Will's Uncle Campbell commits suicide, rather than making the whole affair feel shameful and unforgivable, Mr. Blakeslee pours out compassion and expects the whole town to come along with him in honoring the man. (It's quite possible that his actions were also a reflection of the guilt he felt, but it helped the town move forward in a positive way nonetheless.)

The most tender moment for me, and the one I'll probably always remember from this book, occurred when Will read the suicidal note from his uncle. The P.S. said, "I fixed the faucet," which alone about broke my heart since it was something his wife, Loma, had been nagging him to do for a long time. But then Will noticed that "even as I stood there holding his sweet and lonely words, I heard water going 'drip, drip, drip' into the bathtub." It was too much for me. It made me so sad to think that this man felt like he couldn't do anything right, and then, just before he took his own life, he tried to do something that would make his wife happy. But it hadn't worked; the faucet was still dripping. But then Will, in spite of all of his mischievous and naughty ways, picked up the wrench and changed the washer because, in his words, "nobody was going to say Campbell Williams was so sorry that he couldn't even fix a faucet." There were many heartbreaking moments in this story, but this one--this is the one that got to me.

I listened to the audio version of this book, and I thought it was fantastic. I never even cracked the cover of the actual book, so I never saw what the text was like. To me, the southern accents just flowed easily and naturally. But after going to book club and hearing about the experiences of those who had chosen to read rather than listen, I felt like I made the right choice. Apparently, the dialogue, which had been so engaging for me, was a bit of a beast to read when written out.

I was surprised to find out that this book was published in 1984. For some reason, I expected it to be older than that. I think it has that timeless feel that makes it difficult to place in a certain decade. I can see why many people think of it as a modern classic. It is multi-layered and vivid and just so real. 

4 comments:

  1. I remember my mom's book club reading this! I still haven't though.

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  2. I have read your reviews for a while now and always enjoyed your perspective. I listened to this audio last year for the first time. Your review is spot on!

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  3. It's been ages since I read this and I had only remembered the suicide, honestly. When you described the plot I realized I had separated the Ms Love story from the suicide. Funny how brains work.

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  4. You'll be happy to know there is a sequel to Cold Sassy Tree called Leaving Cold Sassy. I haven't read the sequel yet, so I don't know if it's as good as CST, but it's certainly on my list.

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