I hope you will indulge me in a book review this morning.
I’m currently reading (listening to) a book called Cold Sassy Tree written by Olive Ann Burns — a humorous tale of memoir-style fiction set in 1906, in a small town in Georgia that never existed.
If you were to browse through my slowly expanding Audible account you would find book genres ranging from science fiction and science fact to folklore and fairy tales to horror and historical fiction. There are also some favorites that I’m not sure how to classify, like Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest and Erick Setiawan’s Of Bees and Mist — works of metaphor and symbolism that describe the details of mundane lives on a plane of existence where the fabric of minutiae is woven from pulsing, inky things that change shape with a character’s mood.
Sometimes I get bored of these things and long for something completely different. I was in such a mood when I came across Cold Sassy Tree. The publisher’s summary reads:
The one thing you can depend on in Cold Sassy, Georgia, is that word gets around fast. If the preacher’s wife’s petticoat shows, the ladies will make the talk last a week. But on July 5, 1906, things take a scandalous turn. That is the day E. Rucker Blakeslee, proprietor of the general store and barely three weeks a widower, elopes with Miss Love Simpson, a woman half his age and, worse yet, a Yankee!
A damn Yankee! Can you imagine?
I never have fully understood what a Yankee is and why they are so hated by Southern folk. The book though is not full of hate. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times and very well-written around the dialect and idioms of dusty, small town Georgia.
The author, Olive Ann Burns, was a journalist born in 1924 who grew up in Commerce, Georgia. The characters in the book are based on her father (as a fourteen-year-old boy) and her grandfather who really did remarry three weeks after his first wife passed. (So he wouldn’t have to pay for a maid to come in and take care of his cookin’ and cleanin’ up.)
Burns got her start chronicling family history when her mother was diagnosed with cancer Burns interviewed her mother and documented all the memories she could before the opportunity could be lost. After her mother died, Burns started the same project with her father.
The result is a sentimental glimpse of rural life in nineteen aught six. It’s told with the charm of a Southern tall-tale from the perspective of a young man “coming of age” in a family full of drama, dreams, and what passed for privileged when indoor plumbing was just becoming optional.
Will Tweedy – the protagonist with a proper name of Hoyt William Tweedy and the only boy in Georgia t’ever been run over by a train and live to tell – makes some deeply thought-provoking observations on life:
“But to mourn, that’s different. To mourn is to be eaten alive with homesickness for the person. That day, I mourned mostly for Granny, who had lost more than any of us, but also for Grandpa, for mama and for myself. I didn’t want to visit Granny at the cemetery like Grandpa was doing. That was just her empty shell over there, whereas here I could touch things she had touched, look out on the flowering plants she had looked at and walk through her house.”
“It was like he didn’t hear the silence that greeted them and didn’t see Mama go pale or Aunt Loma flounce out of the parlor and down the hall, handling the baby so rough he woke up squalling. Grandpa walked in like it was the usual thing to go off and get and get a new young wife before your old wife is cold in the grave. Like it never dawned on him anybody would mind.”
Despite all of his hard work helping his family, Will still makes time for kid stuff.
“Mr. Tuttle hadn’t offered me a picking job since that time us boys pulled up an acre of his onion crop to dam the stream between his pasture and ours. We were making a swimming hole. Our daddies paid for the onions and we all worked out the money, but Mr. Tuttle never forgave us.”
And telling tales of ghosts and deflating rubber busts.
“Like an actor whose audience has stood up to clap, I didn’t want to quit. And now I knew what bait to use”
What I’ve pulled out to share with you here are not the funniest moments or even those with the most heart. There’s pain and joy…New discoveries…People being silly due to ego and social convention…There’s even some spirituality offered against the backdrop of religion that’s as ingrained in the South as cicadas and cornbread.
Give Cold Sassy Tree a try. There’s an authenticity that’s undeniable and it will give you many reasons to smile. You may even find yourself sportin’ a hanky-spanky new drawl before you are done.
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