Friday, July 8, 2011

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

This is the story of a teenage boy, an old man, and a town. The boy is going through the growing pains of adolescence. The old man is experiencing the growing pains of age. The town, Cold Sassy Tree, Georgia, is scandalized by their adventures and shenanigans in a way that only a small town can be.

It is through the teenage voice of Will Tweedy that we learn that his grandpa, E. Rucker Blakeslee, remarries when his first wife, Will's Granny, is barely three weeks dead. Miss Love Simpson is less than half Mr. Blakeslee’s age and a Yankee to boot! [dontcha just lovelovelove the names of these characters? Is that Southern for ya, or what?] Of course, the family and the town are in an uproar and Will is thrust into the middle of the action as a confidante and friend to both Grandpa Blakeslee and Miss Love.

Cold Sassy Tree is a lesser-known Southern classic, set in the days when old men walked the South with the wounds of the Confederacy evident on their bodies and in their hearts. This setting and era hasn’t been written about much and because of that, I would have liked to have had Will Tweedy describe race relations more. But every book can’t be To Kill a Mockingbird, I guess.

Will Tweedy is a refreshing narrator, ingenuous and honest. I loved his voice when he expresses his confusing feelings about his new step-granny—who is closer to his age than his grandfather's and is quite voluptuous and lovely—as well as his attraction to Lightfoot, a blonde-haired girl from the mill district at the edge of town. Will traipses across the countryside with his dog Theodore Roosevelt (T.R. for short: he doesn't want anyone to know that his dog is named for a Republican president), having adventures, escaping death, and getting into trouble in a refreshing down-home country boy way (mice in the church, etc.).

I couldn’t decide how I felt about Will Tweedy. I guess I demand a lot from protagonists. I want them to give everything for love, to have uncommon courage and integrity, to have a long-sightedness beyond their years, compassion for those less-fortunate. In short, I want them to be perfect, with a dose of mischievousness on the side. ;) So naturally, Will Tweedy fell short, because of course, he is only human.

I would have liked Will Tweedy better if he had given into his romantic feelings for Lightfoot. But would that have made it a better story? A town boy who defies convention and runs off with the poor mill girl? It would have become a romance in the vein of other stories of star-crossed lovers. Or, is it a better story because, when the boy can’t have/doesn’t let himself get the girl, it depicts what is Real and what is True, even if what is Real and True isn’t romantic or admirable?

I think one of the multifarious (I remember when I learned this word!) benefits and joys of reading is that through it, one can learn about the human experience. One doesn’t have to experience betrayal to feel its sting. One can feel the adrenaline of the chase or the theft or the kill without performing a criminal act. I can feel the pang of loss, the rush of a first crush, the fear of imminent death, all while sitting safely in my apartment with my husband and my cat by my side. These emotions and experiences are all True and Real to someone, maybe not what is right or what makes a swashbuckling story. Will definitely responds to his feelings for Lightfoot in a way that is real, if not swoonworthy... he reacts with weakness and insecurity.

I would have enjoyed this book either way… as sweeping romance or depiction of true life of a Georgia boy in the early 1900s. But who are we kidding? I’m a hopeless romantic and I ALWAYS want the boy to get the girl.