Olive Ann Burns was born in Georgia. After graduating from the University of North Carolina, she worked on the staff of Atlanta Journal, authoring an advice column “Ask Amy” which was very popular among readers. It was the discovery that she has cancer that spurred her to write a novel. Instead of looking elsewhere for inspiration, she turned to family history. Her father was the model for Will Tweedy and Rucker was based on her great grandfather. The town of Cold Sassy was the real town of Commerce where her grandfather had a general store. Though Cold Sassy Tree took nine years to complete, the novel was a resounding success when it came out.
Relevance of the Title
The tree in the title refers to the lone sassafras tree that grew in the outskirts of the town. It was said that at one time there was a bank of them but now only one remained. But this tree too had to go to make way for new roads on which automobiles could move. The tree thus becomes a symbol for change.
Narrow attitudes dominate the society in Cold Sassy. They do not approve of outsiders or of behavior that is different from the norm. When Rucker announces his intention to marry young Miss Love Simpson just three weeks after the death of his wife, his daughters worry only about what the locals will say. Will Tweedy’s maturation consists of being able to disregard social disapprobation and do what he thinks is right. This is something he is able to do as he is encouraged by his grandfather to think right and act right.
The Arrival of Modern Technology
Cold Sassy Tree is set in a time when nineteenth century with its railroads gave way to automobiles. In Cold Sassy Tree, modernity and conveniences came in slowly. Nothing makes the impact the automobile has. The local people come to gawk at the car and exclaim. They cannot understand why Rucker has made this extravagant purchase. To make it possible for cars to move, roads had to be widened. The sole surviving Sassafras tree is cut down to make way for roads.
Death is a catalyst in Cold Sassy Tree. It is Mattie Lou’s death that has Rucker thinking of marrying a second time. Miss Love Simpson who is much younger than him does not love him. But he promises to leave her his house and furniture when he dies. This makes her agree to the marriage. On her part, she agrees to take care of him and keep house. Willy has a near death experience in the story which makes him want to understand the role God plays in the lives of ordinary people. The question that plays in his mind is whether God controls every event that takes place or whether he leaves it to pre-ordained fate. Just when Love and Rucker fall in love, he dies
Will Tweedy is the protagonist of the novel. Though the Will who recounts the story is twenty-two, the Will in the story is an adolescent who struggles to understand difficult moral questions about God, death and love. His grandfather, Rucker is his guide and mentor. They share a loving and easy relationship. Will also gets to know Miss Love well. She is frank and open with him. Encouraged by his grandfather, Will begins to realize that the opinions expressed in Cold Sassy Tree are not the ultimate.
Rucker is an iconoclast who has no patience with the conservative attitude that marks the town of Cold Sassy. He lives according to his ways and if the gossips of the town do not like it, so be it. He is not going to change his ways. Just three weeks after his wife Mattie Lou dies, he decides to get married to Miss Love Simpson who is very young. It is not as though he loves her. He is practical and wants someone to keep house for him.
Miss Love Simpson
Miss Love Simpson has a cheerful attitude that sees her through life in the conservative and disapproving Cold Sassy town. People frown on her for her marriage to Rucker Blakeslee who was her boss. She is clear about her priorities. She has been disappointed in Clayton McAllister who treats her shabbily. She has no illusions about men, having been abused by her father as a child. She believes that marriage to Rucker Blakeslee will be a safe option as it will leave her financially secure. Once she confides in Rucker about her father’s abuse, she is able to move forward. Rucker and she fall in love in spite of the big difference in their ages. In Willy, she finds a kindred soul. He is closer to her age and is the first one to befriend her.
Three weeks after the death of his wife, Rucker Blakeslee announces his intention to marry Miss Love Simpson who works in his general store. His family is aghast at the impropriety as they feel the town will talk about it for ages. Only his grandson, fourteen year old Will Tweedy thinks it is a good idea as his grandfather needs someone to look after him. He finds Love Simpson to be his kind – cheerful and boisterous. One a day when Will sneaks off to fish, he is almost killed by a train that comes down the tracks on which he is walking. He becomes something of a hero in the town. The same day Rucker marries Love. But Willy discovers that they are more like friends using separate rooms in the house.
As feared, the town is agog with talk of the marriage. There are some who claim that Love is still in love with her old boyfriend, Clayton McAllister. Willy however knows that she has rejected him, but he also knows that Love has married Rucker to insure her life with financial security. Rucker needs her to look after him. In the days that follow, Rucker and Love find love. Willy is most happy. One day, he overhears Love confiding in Rucker that she was raped as a child by her own father. Rucker however does not make much of it. This gives her much relief.
In the days that follow, dark things happen in Will’s life. His uncle Camp commits suicide. There is every chance that Lightfoot, the girl who he loves dearly will marry Hosie whom Will considers his rival. Rucker is injured in an attack by some robbers. Though he recovers, Rucker dies soon of pneumonia. The silver lining is that Love is pregnant. Brave girl that Love is, she plans to continue living in Cold Sassy, to Will’s joy.