“Livin’ is like pourin’ water out of a tumbler into a dang Coca-Cola bottle. If’n you skeered you cain’t do it, you cain’t. If’n you say to yoreself, ‘By dang, I can do it!’ then, by dang, you won’t slosh a drop.” This sample of dialogue conveys something of the tone, language, and philosophy of Cold Sassy Tree (the title refers to a small Georgia town, named for a shady sassafras tree). The man pouring life into a Coca-Cola bottle is a self-reliant, one armed 59-year-old storeowner who scandalizes his children and the entire community by marrying the town milliner just three weeks after the death of his wife of many years. Begun as a marriage of convenience, the relationship grows to a passionate and edifying love. The year is 1906, and the story is narrated by the man’s 14-year old grandson, who, as an intimate witness of the love story, gains a valuable awareness of human needs and motivations.
The novel furthers the rich tradition of American humor born in the South. The young sensitive narrator, the vernacular idiom, the homely similes, the practical jokes and tall tales, and the satire of small-town hypocrisy are reminiscent of Mark Twain. The chatty Southern dialect calls to mind Eudora Welty. And Olive Ann Burns deserves to be mentioned in the same paragraph with such writers. Though a first novel, this is distinguished fiction. According to an autobiographical letter, she wanted to prove “that a book about essentially decent people could be a page-turner without explicit sex and constant violence.” She was tired of current sordid stories of unsavory people “who have no self-respect and no respect for any body or any institutions.”
She proves her point in a thoroughly engaging and often moving novel that illuminates afresh and without the cynicism and sensationalism of much current fiction the old elemental themes of love and death and adolescent initiation.
The recreation of a small Southern community in the first decade of our century is masterful. The author, a former writer for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, relied heavily on her own experiences growing up in Commerce, Georgia, and on family history systematically gathered from her par ents. Her father, who like the narrator was 14 in 1906, was one of those master storytellers whose style is not cramped by the truth. Among his stories was one about her grandfather, “who married three weeks after his wife died and who said he loved Miss Annie but she was dead as she’d ever be and he had to git him another wife or hire a housekeeper one, and it would just be cheaper to git married.” This was the germ of her novel, which is fleshed out imaginatively to encompass love among the old as well as the young, the confrontation with death, the poignant ironies of racial and class relations, and both the comedy and injury of village small mindedness.
To readers of current fiction who still believe the novel can be an edifying as well as entertaining reflection of ordinary life, Cold Sassy Tree will be reassuring.
[Cold Sassy Tree, by Olive Ann Burns; New York: Tickllor & Fields]