Death and Yankees, remarriages, first kisses across social stratifications, getting run over (literally) by a train, suicides, family businesses and aunts only a little older than yourself, Cold Sassy Tree crams most of life’s traumas into one busy summer of a boy’s fourteenth year. It’s set in the town of Cold Sassy Tree, Georgia, named for a cool grove of sassafrass trees, and set in 1906. Cars are just becoming popular, though they are still not as popular or as reliable as a horse and buggy; mules are still the prime form of working one’s land and getting from here to there, especially in the poorer towns such as Cold Sassy. The hurt of the Civil War remains raw amongst the townfolk, to the point that they refused for decades to celebrate Independence Day, as, to them, they did NOT gain their Independence, never mind that the holiday refers to independence from another nation entirely.
When the book begins, Will Tweedy’s maternal grandmother dies; his grandfather is heartbroken for about three weeks at which point he horrifies the whole town by marrying the pretty young milliner who’s been working in his general store because he needs a housekeeper. It’s a platonic marriage, as that’s the only way the grandfather thinks he could take a pretty young white woman to live with him without scandalizing the town. Well, without scandalizing them more than he did for marrying so soon after his beloved wife’s death (and she was beloved by all, especially the husband/grandfather, no questions there). There are a number of subplots, including the social stratification dividing the wealthier landowning farmers/townies and the “lintheads”, millworkers who rarely get more than a few years education between bouts of working to help their families make ends meet and (at least for the girls) before marrying. Will is trying to negotiate growing up in a fairly complicated family situation without losing any more than he has already.
Cold Sassy Tree is one of those books told by an adult reminiscing about childhood, and telling their story as if still a child, reporting on adult society without being a part of it, and not understanding anything of what they see or hear, rather like To Kill A Mockingbird except without most of the literary talent. I did enjoy it more than I thought I would, given my history with other books falling into the chicklit book discussion group category, though it’s not brilliant literature for the ages, by any means.
The book is almost thirty years old now, but I seem to recall it was the hot book under discussion in 1984-85. It’s aged reasonably well; I’d say libraries might want to buy it if they can find it, for the book discussion groups which have grown weary of Marley and Me, Tuesdays With Morrie and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It is, in the end, a feel-good chicklit book with enough subtext about maturation, accepting one another and family structure to make it interesting but not enough to vault it out of the ‘enjoyable light read’ category into the realm of ‘Great Literature Which Must Only Be Discussed Seriously’; it includes a number of potentially painful issues without delving into any of them in any great complexity or depth.