I think I’ve mentioned I like a story set in America that reveals a bit of history, yes? Well I was talking to a colleague the other day about other novels we may have hanging around the high school that I could use in my American Lit class.
He pulled Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns out of his cupboard and recommended it. After polling the lunch room, I may be the only person who has never read this book…or heard of it.
At first I didn’t know. It was an old, ugly copy that I was given and the title was dumb. But it was set at the turn of the 20th century in the South, and it was about a family and well, that is the combo I needed to sell me on reading it.
Like I said, the novel begins in 1906 in the small Southern town of Cold Sassy. The narrator, a young Will Tweedy who is 14 at the start of the story, tells about his family–specifically his grandfather, E. Rucker Blakeslee the owner of Cold Sassy’s general store who marries a Miss Love Simpson just three weeks after his first wife passes. This causes a ruckus not just in the family (Will’s mom and aunt are appalled that their father would marry before their dear mother’s body is even cold), but the town is in an uproar about how improper it all is.
Will Tweedylearns a lot about life and death and religion and society from his Grandpa Blakeslee.
At the very beginning of the book, Grandma Blakeslee dies and Will Tweedy compares his feelings to when his friend Bluflord Jackson died less than a year prior. As a fourteen-year old who narrowly escapes being run over by a train, he is confused about God and why he chooses some people and not others to die. About why God would will bad things to happen to good people, since his father–a very strictly religious man–tells him that everything happens due to God’s will.
Grandpa licked some meringue off his fork while he pondered. Finally he said, “Life bullies us, son, but God don’t. He had good reasons for fixin’ it where if’n you git too sick or too hurt to live, why, you can die, same as a sick chicken. I’ve knowed a few really sick chickens to git well, and lots a-folks git well thet nobody ever thought to see out a-bed agin cept in a coffin [...]
[...] When it comes to prayin’, we got it all over the other animals, but we ain’t no different when it comes to livin’ and dyin’. If’n you give God the credit when somebody don’t die, you go’n blame Him when they do die? Call it His will? Ever noticed we git well all the time and don’t die but once’t? Thet has to mean God always wants us to live if’n we can. Hit ain’t never His will for us to die–cept in the big sense.”
Will Tweedy’s big question beside this is about prayer: Why does Jesus tell us in the Bible to just “ask” and we will “receive” when that is not so.
He spends much of the novel coming back to this question. Until the end, that is.
Grandpa Blakeslee was by far my favorite character. I loved his way of explaining the Bible and what he believed God meant for us, his followers. I found myself underlining and starring because they were also ways I felt too.
I also loved how he really didn’t care what the community thought about him. He does what he wants according to his own morals and beliefs.
I read some reviews of people who got lost in the dialect that Burns uses, but I thought it was much easier to get through than say, Huckleberry Finn. In fact, I had no idea what they were talking about. It was not murky or hard to understand and I am a Yankee!
I liked that the story was told from a 22-year old Will Tweedy’s perspective looking back at his teen years. I think Burns did an excellent job of capturing the voice of a young, somewhat innocent teen boy’s voice.
Even though the story takes place in 1906, clearly the themes of questioning life and death and bucking societal norms are universal. I won’t have time to teach the book anymore this year, but hopefully next year I can work it in because I think my students would enjoy reading it.