22 December 2009

Olive Ann Burns: Cold Sassy Tree (1984)

Olive Ann Burns (1924-90) was brought up in Commerce, Georgia, educated in Macon, Georgia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and spent a number of years working for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was during her fight with cancer that she decided to write a novel, Cold Sassy Tree, a book set in 1906 and 1907, modeled on Commerce, and published in 1984.
How does a person react to a book like this that has all the attributes of a popular novel: it's frequently on school syllabuses, and - horror of horrors - the cover calls it a 'national bestseller': just the kind of thing I normally eschew. But then I began to apply to it what I believe are the special preoccupations of the Southern novel: race, religion, gender, and sexuality. It's rare that all attributes fit, but they do in this case, and this is in fact a fascinating, and in some respects brilliant, Southern novel.
It's a coming-of-age novel about the observations of a 14-year-old boy, narrated by the same person some years later. The story concerns E. Rucker Blakeslee, the owner of the general store and a 59-year-old widower of just three weeks who has decided to re-marry. The knowledge that Rucker is marrying again when the general opinion is that he should still be in mourning is enough to cause considerable anger in small town Cold Sassy, but the fact that this is a May-December relationship (Love Simpson is almost half his age), added to the fact that she comes from Baltimore, Maryland, and is therefore almost a Yankee in the eyes of those in the Deep South - the novel is set only some 40 years after the South lost to the Yankess, of course - makes matters far worse.
The narrator Will Tweedy is Rucker's nephew and he's very close to his grandfather. He often visits the couple and not only likes Love but also finds her sexually attractive, although that is as far as it, er, will go. But his rapid friendship with Love is, by various and unintentional means, the cause of Will's gaining access to privileged information about the couple. He learns, for instance, that this is a marriage of convenience, and that Rucker isn't sleeping with his wife but is in effect employing her as a housekeeper in return for deeding his house and furniture to her on his death. When Rucker's daughters become aware of this arrangement, they are understandably far from happy with the prospect of being largely disinherited.
But Rucker's death has not yet come, and both the reader and Love have to learn a lot more of Rucker, who is by appearances a mean, old-fashioned man, and of course a person whose property still has an earth closet and no electricity. After a visit to New York - and this is set during an era when a trip from Commerce to Atlanta and back, just 140 miles, was seen as an event - Love and Rucker not only become a little more friendly, but Rucker returns with the information that he is expanding his business into the nascent car sales trade: he is developiing from something of a Luddite to a modern man, such is the influence that Love (both capitalized and otherwise) is exerting on him. In the end, Rucker dies after just a year of marriage, but leaves Love pregnant.
So in what way is this novel particularly Southern, apart from the obligatory patterns of speech, the occasional mention of scuppernongs or grits, and the white trash from the mountains come down to be town lintheads? As the novel closes, we learn that the old sassafras tree - which gave the town its original name - has been felled to widen the road, and the town is to be renamed Progressive City. Although the narrator doesn't comment on the new name, the reader is no doubt expected to disapprove of it, but not to disapprove of progress itself. Rucker said that Cold Sassy would change its name over his dead body, which it does, but then he is a complex character anyway: he loved the 'Yankee' Love from afar almost from when he saw her, he is completely without racial prejudice, and he hates the violent Old Testament god that everyone around him worships. Love Simpson didn't really have to do so much to change Rucker, but in many ways she represents the New South transforming the Old South, and the marriage - consumated by the life growing within Love's womb - symbolizes a profound change. The future will not be easy, but at least there is room for considerable growth.
Very, very glad I read Cold Sassy Tree.

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