Cold Sassy Tree
© 1984 Olive Ann Burns
“I know now the difference between a writer and an author. A writer writes, and an author speaks.” Those words came from Leaving Cold Sassy, an unfinished sequel to this work which I first read in late middle school or early high school. Over the years, most of the story was lost to me, aside from a few bits and bobs – an old widower scandalizing the town by marrying a young Yankee, the family driving the town’s first ‘artermobile’ down main street – and my lingering affection for it. But those words remained with me, and they came to mind all the more as I ventured again into Cold Sassy this past week.
Cold Sassy Tree takes place in a small north-Georgia village at the crossroads of two centuries, peopled by greying Confederate veterans and their children, who look to the future with excitement. Great things are going on in far away places in New York, but Cold Sassy seems as untroubled and deeply rooted as the sassafras tree downtown. But then the Grand Duke of Cold Sassy’s wife dies, and the duke himself, Rucker Blakeslee, announces that he’s marrying his shop girl – a Yankee several decades too young for him. Though the town is scandalized, ol’ Rucker Blakeslee is just getting started.
When I read this as a child I suppose I was mostly enamored of it because it was the first ‘southern’ novel I’d encountered. As an adult, though, I noticed how much of the novel is driven by tensions in the characters’ relationships with one another. There’s a slow-brewing family war between Rucker’s daughters, who view their new stepmother as a young usurper who has stolen their potential inheritance, bewitching their daddy in the process. The chief relationship is the main character Will’s bond with his grandfather: he is as surprised by the marriage as anyone, but torn between loyalties and affections: he knows his folks don’t like the new Mrs. Blakeslee, but he’s half in love with her himself. Will is also growing up and developing his own personality: he has a friendship with a mill girl that everyone disapproves of, and his hopes for the future don’t involve the family store.
Cold Sassy Tree is not an exciting, dramatic novel; this is not Gone with the Wind, with larger than life characters screaming at each other across the stage, and a war raging in the background. It is instead a cozy, intimate novel, where we see characters falling in love and grappling with the consequences, or trying to rise above old prejudices or make peace with novelties; it’s a tale of growing up, and learning wisdom from losses and growth along the way. As with life, it mixes joys and sorrows: although tension is constant (Will is constantly stuck between his grandpa and his parents), so are the laughs: Rucker has plainly been waiting a lifetime to have this much fun, and now that he no longer has to fear scandalizing his wife of thirty years, all bets are off.
Rereading Cold Sassy Tree is like visiting an old relative and finding out they’re more interesting than you remember. I’d forgotten much of the story, but the years between my readings has also made it possible to get more of out it; reading about a boy losing his grandfather is very different when you’ve actually done it. I suspect a novel like this isn’t for anyone; there’s no sweeping narrative, just family drama and the story of a town and a boy growing up, with an old man’s wit, wisdom, and cackling or grumbling in the background.
“Livin’ is like pourin’ water out of a tumbler into a dang Coca-Cola bottle. If’n you skeered you can’t do it, you cain’t. If’n you say to yourself, “By dang, I can do it!” then, by dang, you won’t slosh a drop.”
“T.R.’s real name was Theodore Roosevelt. He was just a puppy when Papa took me to Atlanta to hear the president speak; I named him Theodore Roosevelt when I got home that day—then shortened it to T.R. so folks wouldn’t think my dog was a Republican.”
“Well’m, faith ain’t no magic wand or money-back gar’ntee, either one. Hit’s jest a way a’livin’. Hit means you don’t worry th’ew the days. Hit means you go’on be holdin’ on to God in good or bad times, and you accept whatever happens. Hit means you respect life like it is – like God made it- even when it ain’t what you’d order from the wholesale house. Faith don’t mean the Lord go’n make lions lay down with lambs jest cause you ast him to, or make fire not burn. Some folks, when they pray to git well and don’t even git better, they say God let’m down. But I say that warn’t even what Jesus was a-talkin’ bout. When Jesus said ast and you’ll git it, He was givin’ a gar’ntee a-spiritual healin, not body healin’. He was sayin’ thet if’n you git beat down – scairt to death you cain’t do what you got to, or scairt you go’n die, ir scairt folks won’t like you- why, all you got to do is put yore hand in God’s and He’ll lift you up.”