02 February 2012

Post 475: Cold Sassy Tree

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns. ISBN: 9780385312585.

Possibly one of the best books I've read recently. It's sentimental without being overwrought. What's more, the characterization of Southern life in the late 1800's and early 1900's is fairly depicted, rather than being painted as what would have been the most glorious time in Southern history had it not been for the "damyankees." Burns recognized the poverty among whites and blacks and the poor conditions they faced, even as she focused on a more well-to-do family for her main story line.

What was more impressive was Burns' ability to tackle the weirdness that is hospitality, vibrant gossip culture, and a dislike of outsiders in the South. You would think that the last two things would be counterintuitive to the first, and that people would realize it, but that's one of the big differences in culture between the Southern United States and the rest of the world. Having been an outsider in the South I can tell you that unless you are somehow related to people who are already down here, it is still pretty difficult to really become a part of the community. This is especially true if you in any way do not conform to the standards of the community. Eccentricities are allowed for the locals, but heaven forbid you prefer to stay home from church on Sunday to tend your garden if your family hasn't been around for 8 generations and you're not related to half the congregation.

Miss Love faces exactly this dilemma when she decides to marry Rucker Tweedy, the general store manager and Will Tweedy's grandfather. When Miss Love moved to Cold Sassy she was welcomed into the community, despite being a Yankee, because of her skills as a milliner and because she more or less fit into the proscribed role expected of an unwed spinster. After marrying Rucker, hardly three weeks after his wife dies, she is treated coldly by the almost the entire town, even those who previously liked her.

Nothing had changed about Miss Love except for her marital status, yet because she married a man who chose to marry shortly after his wife died, she was the one who was seen as money grubbing or having otherwise questionable morals. Certainly the town was scandalized by Rucker's decision, but he was a long standing member of the community and known for his strange views on life in the first place, and the townfolk were able to blame his new marriage on grief. Sadly, women in the South (especially outsiders, whether Yankee or just "unusual") are still expected to adhere to these kind of proscribed rules and are ostracized if they don't.

It doesn't just happen to women in the South, but it does seem to be more accepted here - mostly because there's nothing you can do about it. Everyone here has either known each other since kindergarten, or is from somewhere else and therefore just as much of an outsider as you are. As I mentioned before, gossip is an expected part of nearly every social circle, which makes it even easier to separate the outsiders because you have to know who's who to make any sense of it. Yet it is a traditional and culturally important means of communication and passing along news, which not even Facebook has managed to kill (and probably won't). But I have never understood how Southerners (or anyone) could be so proud of their hospitality while including embarrassing or hateful content in their gossip with the intent to ostracize a person. It is a contradiction I have never been able to come to terms with, but one that Burns has managed to capture in Cold Sassy Tree.

An excellent, if lengthy, writeup is available at Litwits.
LibsNote: Purchased with personal funds from library sale table.
*Edited after posting, because I didn't get to it in time for my editor to send it back prior to posting. You so needed to know this.

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