COLD SASSY TREE by Olive Ann Burns

Cold sassy treeHere we go again, memory like a gnat’s.   I know I read this before, because the names of a number of characters were familiar, but I remembered nothing of the storyline, so I had the luck to enjoy it all over again.  It was written in 1984, and I bet I read it way back then if not in ’84, in the later 80s.  (Senility has its upside — you can save a lot of money on books.  Just keep rereading the same ones over and over again,  since they are always new.)

Delightful story set in 1906 in the small Georgian town of Cold Sassy Tree, and featuring the old families, the Toys and the Tweedys.  We see the people through the eyes of 14-year-old Will Tweedy, during the period when his best friend died of complications of a firecracker explosion, and then his beloved grandmother, an unassuming, woman who cared for the sick people in the town.  Grampa owned the general store in town, and was stingy as all get out, so they never had electricity or indoor plumbing at his house.  Poor miss Mattie Lou, his wife, suffered all her life without the modern conveniences.  He had two grown daughters, and both sons-in-law worked in the store.

Three weeks after Miss Mattie Lou’s burial, Grandpa announced to his two grown daughters that he intended to marry Miss Love, the milliner in his store.  The daughters were absolutely horrified.  Believing he meant that sometime in the future he would marry, the daughters figured they had time to talk him out of it.  But dang if he didn’t set off the next morning to get married.  Needless to say, the town enjoyed the scandal immensely and the sisters were sure they would lose their inheritance.  The houses they lived in were owned by their father, and their husbands livelihood depended on the store.  They were positive Miss Love would do them out of their rightful inheritance, especially since she was fairly young, if she were to have any children by Grandpa.

The book deals with the prejudices and biases of small town Americana at the turn of the last century, and explores the idea of otherness in various ways;  Miss Love was a Yankee of sorts, having come from Baltimore,  Will wanted to go to Ag college and become a farmer instead of working in the store, his aunt had always wanted to be a writer and actress, but was a stay-at-home mom instead, married to a no account young man whom her father despised.

It is about the rivalry between the sisters, and their unabashed hatred of Miss Love, their new stepmother.  It is about the class system, with the nearby mill workers living in a different section of town, and the dismay felt by the townspeople when it was arranged that the mill children would attend the Cold Sass Tree school rather than their own separate school.  It is about the racial situation at that time, it being barely forty years since the Civil War.

The story is fascinating, partly because it is the period when the automobile was just coming into availability for the general public, and the story starts out with mule-driven wagons and horses, and ends with Grandpa establishing a Cadillac and Pierce dealership.

All in all, a lovely book.  I’m glad I forgot I read it.  Memory loss — it’s not all bad.

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