Thursday, January 12, 2017

REVIEW | Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
Publication Year: 1984
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: NA
Awards: None
Format: Audio (from Library)
Narrator: Grover Gardner

WHY?: For some reason this book is in my head as a classic.  In reality it was written in the 1980s and won no awards.  So I think it was just a bestseller when I was a kid and got stuck in my head.  

SYNOPSIS:  The book is set during the year 1906 in the small town of Cold Sassy, Georgia, U.S.A.  It is told from the perspective of the 14 year old Will Tweedy and relates the events surrounding his grandfather's too quick re-marriage to a younger woman after the death of his first wife which scandalizes the whole town.  

MY THOUGHTS:

I really enjoy a good coming of age tale, especially if it takes place in an idyllic past or a small town peopled by quirky folks.  Cold Sassy Tree is all of these things and I definitely enjoyed those elements of the story but in the end, my feelings about the book were a little complicated. I liked the book with some reservations.

The book does a skillful job evoking a bygone age.  An age that actually was on the cusp of change - during the course of the book there are debates about the town's leadership wanting to change Cold Sassy's name to something more progressive sounding and during the book the town gets its first motorcars.  Indeed, the events at the heart of book make a stir because they buck established convention.  The figure at the eye of the maelstrom is E. Rucker Blakeslee, the 59 year old grandfather of the book's 14 year old narrator Will Tweedy.  In many ways, Grandpa Blakeslee rejects the "progress" coming to the town but in some other pretty significant ways he has no problem embracing change, especially if it benefits him.  

The book is a very readable portrait of the town and this larger than life man at this one moment of time spanning a few months.  Much of its charm can be credited to the narrator Will Tweedy.  The story, which at times is grim and the people, who are at times despicable, are made more bearable by being seen through the relatively innocent eyes of Will.  The book is also infused with a good dose of humor and the style of writing is folksy without being twee.  It manages to be one of those books with a tone that can make you laugh while also feeling a little sad and thoughtful.  I think if this had been a more serious novel, I would've reacted very negatively to Rucker but in the end I was just a little disgusted with him.  

One of the main themes of the book is a contemplation of death and mortality.  Two characters die and even Will faces a near death experience.  It questions the extent of God's hand in our fates, how death affects the living and what is properly due to the dead. As I mentioned, it could have gotten quite grim but manages to stay upbeat and light for the most part. This focus on mortality is of particular interest because the author actually began the book after she was diagnosed with Lymphoma, and she felt inspired to start adapting her family's history into this fictional novel.  It was obvious that she had a lot of questions and that mortality was on her mind.

I suppose I've got to tackle the character of Rucker. Rucker is a character with a capital C  - he's feisty, irreverent, strong-willed and full of life.  He's complex and interesting but not always likeable and I have to say while I appreciated that, I was also pretty disappointed about what a selfish old coot he ends up being.  This is definitely a man's world being portrayed  - a rich white man's world to be precise - which is a pretty accurate portrait of the time and place but the book doesn't do a lot to comment on this.  That's a fine creative choice but I found it frustrating and in the end it tempered my enthusiasm for the book.   The women aren't without agency or spunk but they nevertheless come off as being there, at and for the men's pleasure. 

Well known and renowned narrator Grover Gardner read the audiobook and he does a fantastic job.  There is a lot of southern dialect ( for example: “Livin' is like pourin' water out of a tumbler into a dang Coca-Cola bottle. If'n you skeered you can't do it, you cain't. If'n you say to yourself, "By dang, I can do it!" then, by dang, you won't slosh a drop.”) and he handles it all well and makes it sound natural.  In fact, reading the quote above convinces me that listening to the audiobook may be the way to go as I think I might have been distracted by the dialect in writing.

FINAL VERDICT:  An interesting and relatively entertaining portrait of life in a small Georgia town at the turn of the century.  

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