Olive Ann Burns, Cold Sassy Tree (Review)

Olive Ann Burns, Cold Sassy TreeAs I explained in my post last year on Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, we are slowly listening to some of the audiobooks we gave Mr Gums’ mother in the last years of her life, and have just finished Olive Ann Burn’s epic-length, Cold Sassy Tree. From what I’ve read in Wikipedia, Olive Ann Burns was another late bloomer (albeit not an Australian one of course). Born in 1924, she didn’t publish Cold Sassy Tree, which was her only completed novel, until 1984. It was so successful that her readers pleaded for more, for a sequel, that is. She started it, but died of a heart attack in 1990 before finishing it. It, Leaving Cold Sassy, was apparently published unfinished, but with her notes, in 1992.

Now, when authors write historical fiction – particularly one that is not about a specific event, like, say, World War 2, or a person, like, say, the ever popular Ann Boleyn – my first question is why have they decided to write about a past time? Cold Sassy Tree is set in the American South in 1906, though if I remember back to the first CD correctly, the first person narrator, Will Tweedy, is telling the story some 8 years later (which would make it on the verge of the World War 1 – not that that is relevant given the USA’s delayed entry into the war.) According to Wikipedia, Burns was a journalist and columnist, and it wasn’t until 1971 that she “began writing down family stories as dictated by her parents. In 1975 she was diagnosed with lymphoma and began to change the family stories into a novel that would later become Cold Sassy Tree”. So, I guess, there’s my answer: she was capturing the stories from her family’s past. Will Tweedy, I believe, is based on her father. And it is, fundamentally, a simple, but charming, family story.

But, like all family stories, there is a little more to it than that. The American South is – or was, particularly, at the turn of the twentieth century – conservative, religious and prejudiced against other (coloured folks, poor folks, and so on). This is the society that Will Tweedy is born into. Luckily for him, he was also born into a family with an independent-thinker, live-by-his-own-rules, grandfather, E. Rucker Blakeslee. Early in the novel, Cold Sassy Tree (for that’s the name of the town), and particularly Will’s mother and aunt, are thrown into turmoil when 60-odd-year-old Rucker, just three weeks widowed to a wife he clearly loved, ups and marries the 33-year-old Yankee, Miss Love Simpson, who was working as a milliner in his general store.

Will, just entering adolescence, is the perfect narrator in what is, partly, a coming-of-age novel. He adores his grandfather, and becomes a sometime confidant, sometime unwitting but not unwilling eavesdropper, of the newly married couple. He has a mind of his own but is still obedient enough to mostly do what he is told. He soaks up what is going on around him, and is prepared to take risks and listen to new ways of doing things while also maintaining some of that level of shock about change that his parents have.

I’m not going to write a long post on this, partly because I listened to it over a long period of time and partly because, having listened to it, I don’t have good quotes to share. Burns has written the book in southern dialect, but it’s not hard to follow, and she uses some lovely fresh appropriate imagery – similes, in particular – which adds to the enjoyment. The coloured man, Loomis, for example says that religion is “like silver”, you “must keep polishing” it.

Besides the main story of this “shocking” marriage – which has its own trajectory to which Will becomes privy – we see the introduction of motor cars to the small town, the lack of opportunity for the children of the poor working class, the changing role of women, the economic challenges faced by small towns, and the stultifying effect of narrow religious beliefs. It’s not, in other words, all light. There’s drama – a near train accident, a returned would-be lover, a suicide, to name a few. There is also awareness of racism, but Burns glosses over this a little, preferring to show, overall, positive, more humane attitudes. She doesn’t necessarily gild the situation, but she doesn’t draw out the ugliness either.

This is not, probably, a book I would have picked up and read of my own accord, but as a book to listen to during hours on the road it did an excellent job with its engaging characters, its light touch, its warm but clear-eyed view of small-town life, and its sense that although times have changed people haven’t all that much.

Olive Ann Burns
Cold Sassy Tree (audio)
(read by Tom Parker)
BlackstoneAudio, 1993
12H 30M on 11 CDs (Unabridged)

27 thoughts on “Olive Ann Burns, Cold Sassy Tree (Review)

    • I do love the title…it would be something to live in a place called Cold Sassy Tree. I love audiobooks but some definitely work better aurally…a modern oral literature?

      • Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a real spoiler, Ian, but the town’s name was changed at the end to Progress (or is it Progressive) City! Renaming the town is an issue running through the story. The town is based on the town where Burns was born. It has the poetic name of Commerce!! I agree, Cold Sassy Tree is a great name and Rucker wanted to keep it that way!

    • No, that’s very true Karen. I agree that what you listen too needs, mostly, to be quite different to what you read. This one is pretty easy to pick up after big gaps – which is how we heard it.

  1. People in the American South were prejudiced, but no more than people anywhere else are. Having lived in the north for much of my adult life, I can say that yankees are more earnest about race, but many of the people in my small town have actually met very few people of color. I lost my southern accent fast after I moved here, because people thought it sounded “ignorant,” which is an ignorant reaction.

    • Thanks Jeanne for that insight. I agree that racial prejudice is pretty pervasive. It can play out differently in different places though can’t it, depending on local laws and what is deemed acceptable by different communities?

  2. I am familiar with this title but not read it. I liked your descriptions: “The American South is – or was, particularly, at the turn of the twentieth century – conservative, religious and prejudiced against other (coloured folks, poor folks, and so on).” It seems little has changed since those days. I would enjoy this book I think. The audio version sounds good so you can hear the southern dialect. Mind you I can do a pretty good one myself when I’ve had a glass of wine or two. Maybe I’ll read it aloud. I must tell you of a wonderful cartoon I saw today. Furniture removers taking Obama’s big leather chair out of the Oval House and moving in a High Chair for the 20th. Made me laugh. All the best.

    • Ah, love that cartoon Pam. I have a regular snail mail correspondence with a Californian friend. She is beside herself about all this – and I don’t blame her.

      I’ll have to make sure when I get to Tassie again and we meet to ply you with some wine! I do enjoy a southern accent.

  3. I have a similar listening project underway; I wonder just how common it is nowadays! This isn’t one that I’d’ve picked myself either, but I have heard good things about it previously too, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts about it.

  4. Have just finished this, on the basis of your review (which I promptly forgot, so the story unfolded with no expectations). I was a little surprised when I reread your review, and you said ir was an epic. I thought it just standard length. As an audio book it would seem longer, and I read it as an ebook, which messes up my perception. Also I am in hospital, which perhaps provides much more time for reading.
    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The passing of wisdom from grandpa to grandson was delightful – and made me jealous; I never had such a relationship with a grandparent. The characters are well rounded, The humour is woven into the story. As you note, the author raises important issues, but never rams them down our throat.
    All in all, a great book. Thank you for the review.

    • Thanks Neil, so glad you enjoyed it too. Actually, I nearly changed that word epic because I realised it probably was because it was 11 or more CDs and that the book itself may not have been that long! Perhaps we need different definitions for books and audiobooks. A. Anything that it 10 CDs or more feels epic to me. I can imagine it would be a good hospital read. Clearly you didn’t find the dialect a problem.

      Sorry you are in hospital again. Hope you aren’t there for long.

      Did you see that I’ve add a link on my Circus post to an online version of one of the stories? You might like to check it out.

      • I think you read at three times the speed you listen. And a CD is about 90 minutes of listening, or 30 minutes of reading, or 30 pages. So 11 CDS is 330 pages. The maths is crude, but gives you some idea.
        Thanks for the link, clicked and read. Delightful. I have lots of time for reading, probably in hospital for another month. Thank heavens for WiFi and tablets!

        • Thanks for that Neil. I’m not a big audiobook fan so have never researched this though I think I had heard some figure about reading versus listening speeds.

          A month. Poor you. But yes, wi fi and tablets would be a god send. I tell my friends that we need to keep our technological skills up because as we get older and less mobile, technology will be a may way in which we can keep up and stay connected. My parents both have iPads now – Dad for sport, stock exchange and emails, Mum for reading, researching and Solitaire!!

  5. Pingback: Cold Sassy Tree, by Olive Ann Burns, read by Tom Parker | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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