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Cold Sassy Tree

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Category: Book Reports

Autor: reviewessays 28 December 2010

Words: 4018 | Pages: 17

Plot Overview

On July 5, 1906, Rucker Blakeslee announces that he intends to marry Miss Love Simpson, a hat-maker at his store who is years younger than he. This news shocks his family, since his wife Mattie Lou died only three weeks earlier. Rucker’s daughters, Mary Willis and Loma, worry about what the gossips of Cold Sassy, Georgia, will think of their father’s impropriety. Will Tweedy, Rucker’s fourteen-year-old grandson and the narrator of the novel, supports his grandfather’s marriage. Will thinks Miss Love is nice and pretty, even though she comes from Baltimore and therefore is practically a Yankee. Will thinks that Rucker needs someone to look after him now that Mattie Lou is gone. On the afternoon Rucker announces his engagement, Will sneaks off to go fishing in the country despite the fact that he is supposed to be in mourning for his grandmother. He walks across a high, narrow train trestle and nearly dies when a train speeds toward him. He survives by hurling himself between the tracks so the train passes just overhead without actually touching him. Will becomes a sensation after his near-death experience, and the whole town comes to his house to ask him about the incident. Rucker shocks everyone by arriving with his new bride, Miss Love.

The people of Cold Sassy disapprove of Rucker’s hasty marriage, and rumors spread quickly. Will, however, spends a great deal of time at the Blakeslee house and becomes friends with Miss Love. Will soon learns that the marriage is one of convenience and that Rucker and Miss Love sleep in separate rooms. Miss Love tells Will that she married Rucker only because he promised to deed her the house and furniture. For his part, Rucker married Miss Love to save on the cost of a housekeeper. One day, Clayton McAllister, Miss Love’s former fiancй from Texas, shows up and tries to persuade Miss Love to leave with him. He kisses her, but Miss Love sends him away contemptuously. Miss Effie Belle Tate, a local gossip, sees the kiss and promptly spreads the news all over town.

Will and some of his friends make a trip into the country to pick up a horse for Miss Love, camping in the mountains along the way. When they return, Will and his father, Hoyt, try to convince Will’s mother, Mary Willis, to go on a trip to New York. Rucker has bought the tickets to New York so that Hoyt, who works for Rucker, can go to purchase new goods for the store. At first Mary Willis refuses to go because she is in mourning, but Will and Hoyt convince her that the trip will do her good. Right after Mary Willis changes her mind, Rucker decides to use the tickets himself to go to New York with Miss Love. Mary Willis is crushed, and her hatred of Miss Love increases. To take his and Mary Willis’s mind off the disappointment, Hoyt buys a brand new Cadillac and becomes the first motorcar owner in Cold Sassy history.

Rucker and Miss Love return from New York. They are now flirtatious and affectionate with each other, and Will wonders whether their marriage is becoming more legitimate. Rucker announces that he too has bought a car and intends to begin selling cars in Cold Sassy. Lightfoot McLendon is a classmate of Will’s who lives in the impoverished section of Cold Sassy known as Mill Town. One day Will takes Lightfoot on a car ride to the cemetery, where he kisses her. A nosy neighbor sees the kiss and tells Will’s parents. Outraged at Will’s association with common people, Will’s parents forbid him to drive the Cadillac for two months. Will gets around his punishment by driving Rucker’s car. One Sunday, Will, Rucker, and Miss Love take a day trip into the country, where Will gives them driving lessons. On the way back to Cold Sassy, Will crashes the car into a creek bed and damages the radiator. While they wait for a repair team to arrive, they stay with a family that lives nearby. That night, Will overhears Rucker tell Miss Love that he loves her and wants their marriage to be real. Miss Love declares that she cannot marry and that no man would want her if he knew her terrible secret. She tells Rucker that her father raped her when she was a child. Rucker says her past does not lessen his love for her, but Miss Love sends him away.

Eventually, Miss Love and Rucker fall deeply in love. Will’s uncle, Camp Williams, commits suicide, which begins a dark period in Cold Sassy. Rucker hires Will’s worst enemy, Hosie Roach, to work at the store in Camp’s place. Because of his new income, Hosie can marry Will’s beloved Lightfoot. A pair of thieves robs and beats Rucker. Although he recovers from his injuries, Rucker catches pneumonia. As Rucker lies sick in bed, Will overhears him tell Miss Love that God provides strength and comfort to the faithful in times of trouble. Miss Love tells Will that although Rucker does not know it, she is pregnant with Rucker’s child. Rucker dies shortly after he falls ill, but his message of faith in God gives Will strength to cope. Though the town and Will’s family do not accept Miss Love, she knows that they will all accept her child, and plans on staying in Cold Sassy.

Analysis of Major Characters

Rucker Blakeslee

Rucker Blakeslee, a grandfather, patriarch, and successful storeowner, is the commanding center of Cold Sassy Tree. His imposing physical stature reflects his authority over his family and the ease with which he flouts Cold Sassy’s conventions. Not only Rucker’s morals but also his wit and prankish tendency stimulate his desire to be a thorn in Cold Sassy’s side. He takes particular joy in shaming the town’s hypocrites. He marries a much younger woman, holds church services in his own home, and puts on a lavish burial for Camp, even though Camp kills himself. Rucker is determined to defy every convention that the rest of the town observes. Cold Sassy grumbles at Rucker’s cantankerousness, but Rucker is a figure of integrity for his grandson, Will, and for us. The town is prejudiced, but Rucker is open-minded. The town clings to outdated rules, but Rucker behaves according to the dictates of his conscience. The town pays lip service to Christianity, but Rucker deciphers Jesus’ words.

Despite—and also because of—Rucker’s stubbornness and individuality, he holds a position of authority in Cold Sassy. He owns the general store, which is the hub of the town’s business and gossip. He rules, sometimes fiercely, over his obedient daughters and their husbands and children. Because Rucker is an established part of Cold Sassy life, his brashness is easier than it looks. He can safely rail against the status quo, knowing that his power, his will, and his money protect him from the anger his behavior inspires. His rebellion commands admiration, but it also sometimes makes scapegoats of Will, Miss Love, and Loomis, who do not have the same power that protects Rucker and makes him invulnerable to criticism.

Rucker becomes more cheerful and easygoing as the novel progresses. During his marriage to Mattie Lou, various difficulties affect his temperament. Although Rucker and Mattie Lou are kind and considerate to each other, the traumas of their marriage make Rucker controlling and stingy. He provides well for his family, but he vents his sadness through miserliness. Under the influence of Miss Love Simpson, however, Rucker begins to exhibit a new generosity and gentleness.

Will Tweedy

Many critics have likened Will Tweedy to the boy hero Huckleberry Finn from Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Like Huck, whose travels in the South help him learn about life, Will’s experiences help him understand such complex issues as death, prejudice, and love. Will narrates the novel, and although he is twenty-two when he narrates the events of the story years later, he recaptures the adolescent humor and innocent perspective that allow him to view his grandfather’s marriage and the ways of the South with unbiased eyes. This youthful voice keeps the narrative lively, while his adolescent humor lightens the novel’s serious examinations of death and morality.

In many ways, Will Tweedy and Rucker Blakeslee are the same man at opposite ends of life’s spectrum. Critics frequently describe Will as the mirror image of Rucker in outward appearance and personality. Will and Rucker share a penchant for practical jokes, storytelling, and fighting. Their characters also progress along the same arc—though in different directions—over the course of the story. The novel tells the story of Will’s maturation and Rucker’s renaissance. Will must learn from his grandfather how to speak his mind and discard the social constraints of Cold Sassy. As Will learns to become defiant and brave, Rucker, whose defiance hardened him, learns to become happy and youthful. Both Will and Rucker move toward the middle point on the spectrum.

Miss Love Simpson

Miss Love is a spirited young woman capable of speaking her mind, which makes her the perfect companion for the outspoken Rucker. The passages in which she appears bustle with fresh air, sunshine, color, and sexuality, reflecting her vigor. Miss Love also has a vulnerable side, and although she meets Cold Sassy’s disapproval with cheery strength, she spends much of her early married life shedding private tears. Miss Love agrees with Rucker’s policy of greeting all hardship with boisterous tolerance, but their attitude of cheerful resignation has its flaws. It isn’t until Miss Love begins to express her dismay at Cold Sassy’s unfriendliness that she becomes happy.

As Rucker and Miss Love’s relationship develops and they begin to fall in love with each other, Miss Love reveals the abuse that darkens her past and makes her feel polluted and unworthy of love. Although it pains her to reveal her history, by doing so she deepens her connection to Rucker, ceases to worry that she is hiding a scandalous secret, and eventually becomes truly happy. Her bravery demonstrates that honesty can improve even the worst circumstances. Burns portrays the trauma of Miss Love’s childhood as she portrays death—dark, but not hopeless. Miss Love helps Rucker by showing him her ability to convert pain into happiness.

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Struggle to Understand Death

Death pervades Cold Sassy Tree, a novel that begins with Mattie Lou’s death and closes with Rucker’s death. The demise of close relatives prompts Will, an adolescent already primed to ponder deep issues, to question the meaning of life and the justness of God. Will himself almost dies, a brush with mortality that intensifies his desire to understand God. He longs to know whether God interferes in the lives of individual people, as Cold Sassy religion maintains.

Rucker acts as Will’s spiritual mentor throughout the novel, never lecturing, but sharing with Will his own thoughts on death and God. He holds that God does not interfere to prevent or cause the deaths of individuals and that no amount of prayer will sway him. Rucker thinks that God instituted the general rules guiding death and that humans and animals must live by these rules. Rucker believes that although God will not change the fate of individuals, he will, as Jesus promised, give strength to all who pray for it. Burns portrays death as both a devastatingly sad event and a cause for new life. Because of death, Rucker finds happiness with Miss Love and Loma fulfills her dream of writing plays. By the end of the novel, Will has matured enough to greet death with dignity.

The Dawning of the Modern Era

Modern technology floods the slow, Southern town of Cold Sassy. The novel, which takes place in 1906 and 1907, chronicles a time when people’s lives were revolutionized by a host of new conveniences, such as indoor plumbing and toilets, electric light, the automobile, and sound recordings. The novel’s first passages introduce such innovative technology as Will comments on the plumbing and telephones that are making their way into every home. The Tweedy family’s new car, which fascinates the entire town, is the most visible symbol that Cold Sassy is moving out of the nineteenth century, dominated by railroads, and into twentieth century, dominated by automobiles. Burns portrays technological advances as both positive and negative. When Rucker buys a new record player for Miss Love, the purchase brings the family closer together. In order to expand the railroad lines, however, the tree from which Cold Sassy takes its name must be felled. Even the progressive townspeople cannot help but feel some nostalgia for this symbolic development, which suggests the demise of the town’s old-fashioned ways.

The Fight to Overcome Social Constraints

At the smallest whiff of impropriety, Cold Sassy’s residents announce their prejudiced disapproval. For the most part, they distrust what is different. The people of Cold Sassy object to outsiders, making Miss Love the focus of their scorn and disapproval because of her Yankee ways and unusual behavior. Cold Sassy also pays strict attention to social status and discriminates against the people of Mill Town, calling them lintheads and looking down on them as poor, uneducated, and dirty.

An integral part of Will’s maturation is his struggle to resist the close-mindedness of his hometown. When the novel begins, common sense and innocence make Will question the prejudices that older Cold Sassy residents consider the natural order of things. As the novel progresses, Will must develop the bravery to express his own objections. Will befriends Miss Love and becomes her trusted confidante, despite the fact that the rest of Cold Sassy rejects her, including Will’s parents. Will has feelings for Lightfoot, a Mill Town resident, although he stands up for her less successfully than he stands up for Miss Love. Sometimes the omnipresence of Cold Sassy’s prejudices saturates Will, and he agrees with provincial beliefs, as he does when he angrily contradicts Miss Love’s assertion that racism exists in Cold Sassy. For the most part, however, Will resists mindlessly accepting the beliefs of his elders.

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Humor as a Coping Mechanism

Will often uses humor to deal with the grief and tragedy in his life, telling funny stories to convey or dispel feelings that he does not yet understand. For example, on the way home from the camping trip, Will reacts to the stress of hearing his friends speak disrespectfully about Miss Love by telling a series of tall tales about Loma. To cope with his growing preoccupation with death and the meaning of life, Will tells his friends an anecdote about his great-grandmother’s fantastical near-burial. Humor works temporarily, but eventually Will finds that he needs a more lasting way of dealing with his pain. The bond that Will’s stories create between him and Loma feels so artificial that he is relieved when they become enemies again. Burns portrays humor as a useful temporary measure but an inadequate substitute for expressing emotion.

Family as a Burden and a Blessing

In Cold Sassy Tree, families are both a burden and an invaluable support system. Family relationships often consist of power games in which family members try to force one another to behave in certain ways. Rucker’s daughters have the power to make his new wife miserable, but Rucker uses his position as head of the family to enforce his decisions. As bitter as these power struggles can be, familial obligations also mean that characters never find themselves alone in times of need. When Camp commits suicide, Rucker stoutly honors his memory, even though Rucker treated Camp badly and resented the fact that his familial bond to Camp forced Rucker to give the lazy boy special treatment. Burns concludes that like all of life’s other obstacles, families are a source of grief and anxiety, but that they can also provide succor and foster growth.

Language as a Reflection of Class and Place

The language in Cold Sassy Tree reflects the regional speech of the period and often reflects a character’s class and upbringing. The people of Cold Sassy speak in standard Southern vernacular, and the people of Mill Town speak with a slightly different inflection that reveals their lower social status. Miss Love speaks proper English because one of her relatives wanted her to sound elegant. Toward the end of the novel, Miss Love inadvertently says “ya’ll,” a word common in Southern diction and foreign to her proper ways. This utterance signals her gradual acclimation to Cold Sassy’s Southern values and traditions.

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Cold Sassy Tree

The Cold Sassy tree gives the novel its title and the town its name, and it symbolizes a number of concepts and characters. The tree stands for Rucker’s and Miss Love’s strength and composure, and the word sassy might refer to their sassy flouting of the town’s social conventions. The tree also symbolizes an older era in the town’s history. The town takes its name from the trees, and the shrinking sassafras grove parallels the town’s bittersweet progress. When settlers first came to Cold Sassy there was a whole grove of sassafras trees. To make room for the new railroad, all but one tree was cut down. At the end of the novel, that last tree is felled so that the tracks can be widened, and the townspeople want to change the name of the town to something more modern. With this eradication of the sassafras trees over time, the town grows more modern and distances itself more from its heritage.

Valentine’s Day

Miss Love Simpson teaches Rucker and Will about love, so it is fitting that her birthday falls on Valentine’s Day. Her name also fits her loving, affectionate nature. Valentine’s Day comes to symbolize not only Love’s sweet nature but also the love shared by Rucker and Miss Love, and the possibility of such love despite social stigmas.

Key Facts

full title · Cold Sassy Tree

author · Olive Ann Burns

type of work · Novel

genre · Coming-of-age tale; love story

language · English

time and place written · 1976–1984, Georgia

date of first publication · 1984

publisher · Ticknor & Fields

narrator · Will Tweedy

point of view · Will narrates in the first person, commenting on the events and people in the story.

tone · Will’s tone is youthful, exuberant, innocent, and colloquial.

tense · Past

setting (time) · 1906 and 1907, although Will is telling the story years later, in 1914

setting (place) · Cold Sassy, Georgia

protagonists · Rucker Blakeslee and Will Tweedy

major conflict · Rucker Blakeslee and his new bride, Miss Love Simpson, attempt to live happily and ignore the town’s and the Blakeslee family’s general condemnation of their union. Will struggles to grow up and maintain his integrity.

rising action · Rucker announces his marriage to Miss Love; Rucker and Miss Love go to New York City; Will loses Lightfoot to Hosie Roach

climax · Rucker reveals his love to Miss Love; she reveals that her father raped her

falling action · Rucker and Miss Love enjoy their newfound love; Rucker hires Hosie; Will understands the love between Rucker and Miss love

themes · The struggle to understand death; the dawning of the modern era; the fight to overcome social constraints

motifs · Humor as a coping mechanism; family as a burden and a blessing; language as a reflection of class and place

symbols · The Cold Sassy tree; Valentine’s Day

foreshadowing · In Chapter 46, Will’s hope that something bad will happen to Hosie and his comment that it happens to Rucker instead hints at the illness that strikes Rucker and his death shortly thereafter.

Character List

Will Tweedy - The novel’s narrator and protagonist. Will is a fourteen-year-old boy growing up Cold Sassy, Georgia at the very beginning of the twentieth century. Although he comes from a conventional family, Will is a free spirit and often feels compelled to defy the rules governing his life. Following his grandmother’s death and his grandfather’s second marriage, Will begins to grapple with issues of love and death, and his perspective on life begins to change.

Will Tweedy (In-Depth Analysis)

Rucker Blakeslee - Will’s maternal grandfather. Rucker is a brash, humorous, and domineering man who owns the general store in Cold Sassy. Rucker is passionately Southern, but he has no use for the gossip and hypocrisy of Cold Sassy’s small-town ways, and he acts according to his own code of decent conduct, not the town’s.

Rucker Blakeslee (In-Depth Analysis)

Miss Love Simpson - A pretty, affectionate, and strong-willed woman. Miss Love has succeeded despite a troubled childhood. In addition to charm and a sense of humor, she possesses a business acumen that wins her an important role in running Rucker’s store. She lives her life cheerfully and bravely, ignoring or defying the expectations of the close-minded and suspicious inhabitants of Cold Sassy.

Miss Love Simpson (In-Depth Analysis)

Mattie Lou Blakeslee - Will’s grandmother and Rucker’s first wife. Mattie Lou dies three weeks before the novel begins. Mattie Lou was an excellent gardener and a devoted caretaker for the sick. The people of Cold Sassy speak reverently of her, and Rucker never forgets her companionship and goodwill.

Hoyt Tweedy - Will’s father. Hoyt is a stern, pious man who loves his family and has a weak spot for modern technology. Although Hoyt is Rucker’s son-in-law and a devoted employee, he proves himself capable of standing up to his boss and defending his wife, Mary Willis, when the occasion calls for it.

Mary Willis - Tweedy Mattie Lou and Rucker’s older daughter. Mary Willis is conventional and nervous, but kind. The death of her mother deeply affects Mary Willis. She mourns for a long time and finds it difficult to forgive her father for remarrying so quickly, which she sees as a betrayal of her mother’s memory.

Loma Williams - Mary Willis’s younger sister. A few years older than her nephew, Will, Loma is a bossy, jealous, and often petulant young woman. She dreams of being a writer or an actress and chafes against her dead-end marriage to the useless Campbell Williams.

Lightfoot McLendon - A pretty and studious young girl from the impoverished Mill Town. Lightfoot is the object of Will’s affections. Although she marries Hosie Roach, Lightfoot feels affection for Will and parts from him with difficulty.

Campbell Williams - Loma’s husband. Campbell, called Camp, fails at home and at work. He wants to please but finds himself hampered by his own incompetence. Loma and Rucker criticize him constantly and drive him to despair.

Hosie Roach - A twenty-one-year-old boy from Mill Town who attends Will’s school despite his advanced age. Although Will considers Hosie his enemy, Hosie shows great promise and the townspeople of Cold Sassy see big things in his future.

Loomis - A black man in Cold Sassy. Loomis is an employee at the general store and the husband of the Tweedys’ cook, Queenie. Loomis is a kind and loving man and an excellent preacher.

Miss Effie Belle Tate - Rucker’s next-door neighbor. Miss Effie Belle Tate loves snooping and gossiping. She embodies the narrow-mindedness, spite, and rumor-mongering that characterize Cold Sassy.

Clayton McAllister - A brash, charming, and wealthy rancher from Texas. Clayton’s shabby treatment of Miss Love makes her fear love and marriage.

Aunt Carrie - An eccentric woman called “aunt” because of her friendship with the Tweedy family. Aunt Carrie’s odd mannerisms and theories make her the object of ridicule, but in fact she is a woman of education and poise.

Campbell Junior - The baby son of Loma and Camp Williams. Campell Junior is remarkable because of his plumpness.

Queenie - The Tweedys’ cook and Loomis’s wife. Queenie seems a jovial figure, but in fact she suffers because of the prejudices of white Southerners.

T.R. - Will’s dog, named after Theodore Roosevelt.

Mary Toy Tweedy - Will’s younger sister.

Bluford Jackson - Will’s deceased friend. Bluford makes a ghostly appearance early