Study Guide

Cold Sassy Tree

by Olive Ann Burns

Cold Sassy Tree Analysis

Literary Techniques

As Burns labored on her family history in the early 1970s, a journalist by training and a perfectionist by nature, she left no stone unturned. She interviewed, she collected, she scoured, she assembled. She believed in knowing people through their speech, and arduously collected colloquialisms, patterns of speech, phraseology, curious names, local superstition, death stories, and folk lore. In creating a novel she followed the adage of "writing what you know about" and turned to her ancestral home town, renaming it Cold Sassy, to weave her collected treasures of regional color into the novel's fabric.

Cold Sassy Tree is a marriage of the coming-of-age novel and the universal love story. The novel accomplishes its dual purpose through the narration of Will Tweedy, who chronicles both his passage into adolescence and the love story of his mentor, grandfather, E. Rucker Blakeslee and his new bride. This technique affords the novel with the freshness, innocence and vitality invoked by youth. These qualities are well suited to the exuberance and hopefulness that underscores the developing relationship. Will's youthful "boy howdy" approach to life symbolizes the rejuvenating, healing effects of the love blossoming in the lives of Rucker and Love. In turn, Rucker's poignant maxims create a framework for Will's early struggles in understanding life.

The novel offers a painstaking recreation of Georgian small town life at the...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Cold Sassy Tree Ideas for Group Discussions

More than a decade after its first publication in 1984, Cold Sassy Tree's popularity continues to grow. Its broad-based appeal has made it a regular selection for book clubs and coteries. Claiming both the territory of a coming-of-age novel and regional fiction it offers a rich range of topics for exploration. The book's thematic treatment of love, death, jealousy, and faith can be utilized to probe the values of yesteryear and those of modern society. The novel lends itself to discussing many aspects of family and marriage. The dominant theme of love and marriage can be examined through the sub themes of expectations, tolerance, and support of the extended family. The framework of the extended family itself in Cold Sassy Tree shows the value and the impact of transgenerational relationships.

Burns believed that her fiction of small town life contained a universality, demonstrating the networking of individuals, families, groups, races, and institutions in a microcosm. From this arena topics of citizenship, interdependence, social conformity, and prejudice can be broached. As a period novel, the changes in economics, industrialization, and modernization illustrate how people react to change.

Groups may also wish to focus on the use of humor and anecdote in Cold Sassy Tree and the role of oral tradition in the story, as well as in the crafting of the story.

1. The family's hired "colored" help was once owned by...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Cold Sassy Tree Social Concerns

The fabric of Southern community life at the turn-of-the-century is rendered in the fictional town of Cold Sassy, Georgia. A May-December romance scandalizes the rural community as one of the town's leading citizens, E. Rucker Blakeslee, marries a milliner employed at his store. The nuptials occur only three weeks after the death of Miss Mattie Lou, his wife of thirty-six years. The marriage brings not only the disapproval of the townsfolk but of his two married daughters as well. An emerging portrait of love amid scorn is recounted by Rucker's fourteen-year-old grandson, Will Tweedy.

His daughters are not only outraged at the brazenness of Rucker's sudden marriage to Love Simpson, the milliner, but fearful of the potential loss of inheritance that could result from the union. Rucker Blakeslee's dominance and unquestioned patriarchy illustrate the bonds between economic security and familial loyalty typical of this era. His daughters' fierce disapproval of the new marriage is kept in check only by the fact that their daddy is also their husbands' employer and the owner of their homes.

The shroud of mystery surrounding Miss Love's past has fed the suspicions of the community since her arrival from Baltimore two years earlier. Why such a lovely lady over thirty has remained single puzzles the town. Cold Sassy only needs the hint of impropriety to demonstrate the cardinal rule of prejudice, to distrust what is different. The townspeople carry a...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Cold Sassy Tree Literary Precedents

Will Tweedy is said by critics to be a creation reminiscent of Mark Twain's Huck Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1854) and Holden Caufield in J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (1951). Tweedy's fourteen-year-old eyes render a portrait of life that is as honest as it playful. As the tumultuous year of 1906 unfolds, Will Tweedy encounters such complex issues as death, prejudice and love. Yet the course of the journey is kept lively and engaging due in large part to the charm and vigor of young Tweedy. Like a Twain character, Will moves deftly from shenanigan to social quandary without missing a beat.

(The entire section is 104 words.)

Cold Sassy Tree Related Titles

With the unexpected popularity of the novel came floods of mail to Olive Ann Burns requesting a sequel to Cold Sassy Tree. In 1987 she underwent a second round of chemotherapy which led to congestive heart failure and more than a year of complete bed rest. In February 1988 with the assistance of a Dictaphone and her neighbor/secretary Norma Duncan she began the sequel with the planned title Time, Dirt and Money. Her father, William Arnold Burns, had been her model for Will Tweedy in Cold Sassy Tree, and Time, Dirt, and Money was to be the saga of her parents' life and marriage during the Depression. The book was unfinished at the time of her death, July 4, 1990.

Her dedicated editor at Ticknor & Fields, Katrina Kenison, assembled the early chapters which Olive Burns had completed and supplemented these with Burns's notes. Kenison then wrote a reminiscence of Olive Ann Burns which together with the material for Time, Dirt, and Money comprise Leaving Cold Sassy (the unfinished sequel to Cold Sassy Tree) published in 1992 by Ticknor & Fields.

In Leaving Cold Sassy Burns had desired to show what one critic called the "interior limbo of a marriage . . . the adult experience of disappointment and despair." The tone, theme, and construction varies dramatically from Cold Sassy Tree, but a work so abruptly terminated does not bear too close of scrutiny. It is clear that Burns's intent was...

(The entire section is 251 words.)

Cold Sassy Tree Adaptations

In 1986 Faye Dunaway bought the movie rights to Cold Sassy Tree. The Turner Network Television production first aired in October of 1989 and was later released for home video. The film stars Faye Dunaway, Richard Widmark, and Neil Patrick Harris. The adaptation is fairly faithful to the original with regard to dialogue and plot, although some liberties are taken with both structural and minor details. Burns was disappointed to discover that the film's rendition of her carefully crafted "down home" dialect was riddled with the inflections and grammar of educated Yankees.

The film version suffers much in its condensation, due largely to poor characterization. In an effort to keep the focus on the romance, this version reduces Will Tweedy's role to a stoic observer, hovering in the background. Consequently the vitality is drained from the story. Rucker shares the problem of woodenness with Will Tweedy. In a few scenes, such as the funeral for Camp Williams, Rucker delivers his character with some of the force which permeated his personality in the novel. However, the film's Rucker Blakeslee lacks the humor and spirit of the original. Rucker's daughter, the beautiful, arrogant, self-centered, little she-devil, Loma Blakeslee Williams comes across on the screen as merely another rude and catty woman in a pompadour. The only character to remain true to the novel in substance and style is Faye Dunaway's Love Simpson. Because a film adaptation must...

(The entire section is 300 words.)