Tag Archives: Georgia

Swan – Frances Mayes

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Swan was a much-needed break from murder and mayhem, although a tragic death is the catalyst for much of the action in the book. Frances Mayes has written a smart story full of smart, literate, thoughtful people who happen to be as eccentric as any true southerners.

Ginger Mason and her brother J.J. were devastated when 11-year old Ginger discovered the bloody corpse of her mother on the kitchen floor of their house in Swan, Georgia. Swan is one of those places that exists, lush and ancient, in a pocket of the deep South, clinging to its old ways, kindnesses and cruelties. Ginger fled, eventually, to Italy to work on an Etruscan archaeological dig. Marco is the archaeologist who wins her heart but even he can’t compete with disturbing news from Swan that sends Ginger back across the Atlantic to her family and its ghosts.

J.J., once considered to be headed to medical school to follow in his father’s footsteps, spends his time hunting and fishing in the swamps and bayou, collecting old arrowheads and carved fishing spears from the Creek Indians who once inhabited the area. He disappears for days and weeks at a time, as he has since the day their mother was declared a suicide and their father began the two years of steady drinking that would lead to a stroke and life in a nursing home.

The story tracks what happens when their mother’s grave is vandalized, dumping her mostly preserved body out in the mud of the graveyard. The crime opens all the old wounds and exacerbates the losses. The aunt who raised the two children is one of the women who discovers her sister-in-law’s body and is thoroughly unnerved. But her agitation has as much to do with a sense of guilt as it does with shock.

Past secrets can’t remain buried once the corpse is exposed and a routine inspection of the body reveals another shocking truth. Ginger and J.J. try to cope with the onslaught of new knowledge and old pain. They use the haunts of their childhood to soothe the damage and the strain of dealing with their quirky family, longtime help and the citizenry of tiny Swan, Georgia in which privacy is a foreign concept and memories are long.

Swan is beautifully written—a real pleasure to read. The characters are intelligent, not oafish or superficial. I’ve never read Mayes’ well-known Tuscany books but I might check out one or two for the pure enjoyment of reading such fluent and rewarding writing.

Swan   Frances Mayes | Broadway Books   2002

Cold Sassy Tree – Olive Ann Burns

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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