As 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)
12H 30M on 11 CDs (Unabridged)