The Struggle to Understand Death: Death pervades Cold Sassy Tree, a novel that begins with Mattie Lou’s death and closes with Rucker’s death. The demise of close relatives prompts Will, an adolescent already primed to ponder deep issues, to question the meaning of life and the justness of God. Will himself almost dies, a brush with mortality that intensifies his desire to understand God. He longs to know whether God interferes in the lives of individual people, as Cold Sassy religion maintains.Rucker acts as Will’s spiritual mentor throughout the novel, never lecturing, but sharing with Will his own thoughts on death and God. He holds that God does not interfere to prevent or cause the deaths of individuals and that no amount of prayer will sway him. Rucker thinks that God instituted the general rules guiding death and that humans and animals must live by these rules. Rucker believes that although God will not change the fate of individuals, he will, as Jesus promised, give strength to all who pray for it. Burns portrays death as both a devastatingly sad event and a cause for new life. Because of death, Rucker finds happiness with Miss Love and Loma fulfills her dream of writing plays. By the end of the novel, Will has matured enough to greet death with dignity.
The Dawning of the Modern Era: Modern technology floods the slow, Southern town of Cold Sassy. The novel, which takes place in 1906 and 1907, chronicles a time when people’s lives were revolutionized by a host of new conveniences, such as indoor plumbing and toilets, electric light, the automobile, and sound recordings. The novel’s first passages introduce such innovative technology as Will comments on the plumbing and telephones that are making their way into every home. The Tweedy family’s new car, which fascinates the entire town, is the most visible symbol that Cold Sassy is moving out of the nineteenth century, dominated by railroads, and into twentieth century, dominated by automobiles. Burns portrays technological advances as both positive and negative. When Rucker buys a new record player for Miss Love, the purchase brings the family closer together. In order to expand the railroad lines, however, the tree from which Cold Sassy takes its name must be felled. Even the progressive townspeople cannot help but feel some nostalgia for this symbolic development, which suggests the demise of the town’s old-fashioned ways.
The Fight to Overcome Social Constraints: At the smallest whiff of impropriety, Cold Sassy’s residents announce their prejudiced disapproval. For the most part, they distrust what is different. The people of Cold Sassy object to outsiders, making Miss Love the focus of their scorn and disapproval because of her Yankee ways and unusual behavior. Cold Sassy also pays strict attention to social status and discriminates against the people of Mill Town, calling them lintheads and looking down on them as poor, uneducated, and dirty.An integral part of Will’s maturation is his struggle to resist the close-mindedness of his hometown. When the novel begins, common sense and innocence make Will question the prejudices that older Cold Sassy residents consider the natural order of things. As the novel progresses, Will must develop the bravery to express his own objections. Will befriends Miss Love and becomes her trusted confidante, despite the fact that the rest of Cold Sassy rejects her, including Will’s parents. Will has feelings for Lightfoot, a Mill Town resident, although he stands up for her less successfully than he stands up for Miss Love. Sometimes the omnipresence of Cold Sassy’s prejudices saturates Will, and he agrees with provincial beliefs, as he does when he angrily contradicts Miss Love’s assertion that racism exists in Cold Sassy. For the most part, however, Will resists mindlessly accepting the beliefs of his elders.
Humor as a Coping Mechanism: Will often uses humor to deal with the grief and tragedy in his life, telling funny stories to convey or dispel feelings that he does not yet understand. For example, on the way home from the camping trip, Will reacts to the stress of hearing his friends speak disrespectfully about Miss Love by telling a series of tall tales about Loma. To cope with his growing preoccupation with death and the meaning of life, Will tells his friends an anecdote about his great-grandmother’s fantastical near-burial. Humor works temporarily, but eventually Will finds that he needs a more lasting way of dealing with his pain. The bond that Will’s stories create between him and Loma feels so artificial that he is relieved when they become enemies again. Burns portrays humor as a useful temporary measure but an inadequate substitute for expressing emotion.
Family as a Burden and a Blessing: In Cold Sassy Tree, families are both a burden and an invaluable support system. Family relationships often consist of power games in which family members try to force one another to behave in certain ways. Rucker’s daughters have the power to make his new wife miserable, but Rucker uses his position as head of the family to enforce his decisions. As bitter as these power struggles can be, familial obligations also mean that characters never find themselves alone in times of need. When Camp commits suicide, Rucker stoutly honors his memory, even though Rucker treated Camp badly and resented the fact that his familial bond to Camp forced Rucker to give the lazy boy special treatment. Burns concludes that like all of life’s other obstacles, families are a source of grief and anxiety, but that they can also provide succor and foster growth.
Language as a Reflection of Class and Place: The language in Cold Sassy Tree reflects the regional speech of the period and often reflects a character’s class and upbringing. The people of Cold Sassy speak in standard Southern vernacular, and the people of Mill Town speak with a slightly different inflection that reveals their lower social status. Miss Love speaks proper English because one of her relatives wanted her to sound elegant. Toward the end of the novel, Miss Love inadvertently says “ya’ll,” a word common in Southern diction and foreign to her proper ways. This utterance signals her gradual acclimation to Cold Sassy’s Southern values and traditions.
The Cold Sassy Tree: The Cold Sassy tree gives the novel its title and the town its name, and it symbolizes a number of concepts and characters. The tree stands for Rucker’s and Miss Love’s strength and composure, and the word sassy might refer to their sassy flouting of the town’s social conventions. The tree also symbolizes an older era in the town’s history. The town takes its name from the trees, and the shrinking sassafras grove parallels the town’s bittersweet progress. When settlers first came to Cold Sassy there was a whole grove of sassafras trees. To make room for the new railroad, all but one tree was cut down. At the end of the novel, that last tree is felled so that the tracks can be widened, and the townspeople want to change the name of the town to something more modern. With this eradication of the sassafras trees over time, the town grows more modern and distances itself more from its heritage.
Valentine’s Day: Miss Love Simpson teaches Rucker and Will about love, so it is fitting that her birthday falls on Valentine’s Day. Her name also fits her loving, affectionate nature. Valentine’s Day comes to symbolize not only Love’s sweet nature but also the love shared by Rucker and Miss Love, and the possibility of such love despite social stigmas.
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