For some people, there are short periods in their lives when they have to do a lot of growing up, very quickly. For Hoyt Willis Tweedy, that time is the summer, fall, and winter of 1906. Cold Sassy Tree, by Olive Ann Burns, tells the story of the summer that Will stopped being a child. The blurbs on the front and back of the edition I read told me that this was a hilarious book. While there are parts of this book that made me laugh, Cold Sassy Tree mostly made me angry or sad. That said, I can understand why the other blurbs of this book call it “one of the best portraits of small town southern life ever written” (Pat Conroy)—though I have to point out that this book is very much a portrait of white southern life.
Cold Sassy Tree opens in July of 1906 with a scandal. Will’s grandfather has just gotten remarried. This wouldn’t be so scandalous except that Grandpa Blakeslee’s first wife died just three weeks prior and that his new wife is a “damnyankee.” It doesn’t take long for us to learn that Blakeslee’s chief delight is tweaking the town’s nose. Right up until the poignant end to the novel, Blakeslee will scandalize people left and right throughout the town of Cold Sassy. Will, for the most part, is caught in the middle. He sympathizes with and rather enjoys his grandfather’s antics, but he has to live with his mother who is mostly horrified by her father’s actions.
Will is a retrospective teenager. As the novel rolls along, he ponders the town, his mother, and his aunt’s reaction to Blakeslee’s remarriage. One gets the impression that there is only one acceptable way to live in Cold Sassy. If someone steps off the path, they are gossiped about and, if they don’t have enough clout, shunned. Will’s mother and aunt are constantly worried about what everyone will think.
On the surface, Cold Sassy Tree is a comedy of manners. But because it’s set in the American south, there are some dark undercurrents in the story. There were only a few chapters where I didn’t come across, all unawares, a slap in the face from racism, classism, sexism, or religious hypocrisy. The people of Cold Sassy, Georgia would like to think they’re upright Christian folks, but they look down on black people, the mill workers and farmers, and people from north of the Mason-Dixon line. (Meanwhile, the town Baptists aren’t overfond of the Methodists in town, and the feeling is mutual.)
There are a lot of ideas to mine from Cold Sassy Tree. I feel I could write whole papers about scenes like when Will learned the real reason his family’s black cook and maid won’t use the family dishes or when he gets caught kissing a mill working girl or just tracing the use of certain derogatory terms used by the white characters. There are land mines buried throughout this book.