Cold Sassy Tree is a turn-of the-century novel—19th to 20th–set in Cold Sassy, Georgia, a fictional small town named after a chilly season and the sassafras trees that once defined a settlement. All but one of the trees are gone now and the town is on the cusp of irrevocable change. “Damnyankees” is still one word but electric lights, indoor plumbing, telephones and automobiles are remaking daily life and the landscape. Blakeslee’s mercantile is transforming right along with the family and the times.
The narration is handled by 14-year-old Will Tweedy but the story is really about his grandpa, E. Rucker Blakeslee, who owns the store, supports the family and is a very progressive patriarch for 1906 in the Deep South. Grandpa Blakeslee is genuinely grief-stricken at the death of Granny Blakeslee, Mattie Lou, his beloved wife. But that doesn’t stop him from eloping with the store’s milliner, Miss Love Simpson, three weeks later. The family is horrified. The town is scandalized. Grandpa pays them no mind because he needs a housekeeper and, as he succinctly puts it when reminded that his longtime wife is newly buried, “She’s dead as she’ll ever be, ain’t she?”
Will is a lot like Grandpa, an independent cuss who almost always chooses candor over diplomacy. But the old man is crafty and clever as well and generally gets his own way. As the town fusses and flutters about the unseemly elopement, Will discovers a few things about Miss Love and his grandfather that confuse him even more. The story is fashioned like a family quilt with sections detailing siblings, spouses, nosy neighbors, rival churches, old grudges, sit-down meals, and big adventures. Will narrowly escapes death and becomes a local celebrity. He daydreams about a forbidden “mill girl,” a friend from school who lives on the wrong side of the tracks. He ducks chores, eavesdrops accidentally and on-purpose and doesn’t know how to hold the juicy information he uncovers.
Cold Sassy Tree is Will’s coming-of-age story but it’s as much the saga of his relationship with the irreverent, iconoclastic and stubborn mentor who keeps his own secrets while he manipulates the whole town. Olive Ann Burns makes thrifty use of her own early twentieth century upbringing in a small Georgia town. Her vivid descriptions of learning to drive Cold Sassy’s eye-popping first car; local characters and their personal peculiarities; the tides and torments of ruinous gossip, rivalries, and unapologetic snooping; the strict social etiquette that dictates behavior, however unkind and hypocritical; and the family loyalties that ultimately trump jealousy and vendettas are as compelling as an addictive made-for-television series.
It’s a wonderful story—funny, sad, surprising, suspenseful and memorable. Cold Sassy Tree was an instant best seller debut for sixty-year old Burns in 1984. Unhappily, she only completed part of one sequel before she died six years later.
Cold Sassy Tree Olive Ann Burns | First Mariner Books 1984