"Cold Sassy Tree" was the March selection for our Heathrow Literary Society. I knew virtually nothing about the story, except that it was a "classic" that was published in 1984 by a journalist who wrote the story while convalescing from lymphoma. I also knew the story had a coming-of-age theme. So I went into this one cold.
Synopsis: Our story takes place in 1906 and is narrated by a 14 year-old boy named Will Tweedy. He and his family live in a small town in Georgia named Cold Sassy, the name derived from the Sassafras trees that grow in that area. Will's grandmother has just died, and his grandfather shocks his family and the gossipy community by marrying a woman 20 years his junior only three weeks after grandma was laid to rest.
And so goes the summer that Will Tweedy will remember for the rest of his life. He experiences life lessons about love, social propriety, and about Jesus. He even gets run over by a train and experiences his first kiss. He learns to drive a car, he ponders death, and finds out that life is neither fair nor ends up happily-ever-after.
My thoughts: When I first started this book, I found it somewhat charming and possibly trying a little too hard to be funny, in a Southern, goofy, teenage boy kind of way. Over time, however, the story became bittersweet and sobering, and I gained a deeper appreciation for the themes that the author threaded through the narrative. I had heard from others that this book was required reading in their high school, and after finishing it, that makes a whole lot of sense. There is a lot to discuss here.
I think one of the most amazing books ever written is "To Kill a Mockingbird". It is innocent, and is about the loss of innocence. It has humor, but is humbling. It teaches lessons about life. In many ways, "Cold Sassy Tree" had similar qualities. Now, don't go looking for the closest piece of rotten fruit that you can throw at me. Nothing will ever match TKAM, but some of the nuances were there, and it made me wonder about Olive Ann Burnes' inspiration.
The prose and dialect was delightfully "Southren". Burns also did an admirable job of channeling a teenage boy (God love her, it must not have been easy), and capturing the personality of a quirky little town at the turn of the century and of the climate of the US at that time. Burns also managed to surprise me with a couple of plot twists that I did not see coming. Overall, I enjoyed the book. I can't say that I loved it and that it warranted five stars, maybe because it felt like it had all been done before, but I would recommend it.
A few words about the audio: The narrator for this audio production was Tom Parker, who is new to me, but appears to have been all over the board in the narration category, including a few classics. It would have been easy to screw this book all to heck, with the tricky dialect, but he did a splendid job. I don't know if he is a Southern boy, but it sure sounded like it.
I do need to point out that dialects can be tricky in print as well. If you struggle with them, audio may be the answer for you. In this case, the dialect seemed organic and very easy to understand.
One pretty huge annoyance was the background noise of the production. There were times that it sounded like Parker was narrating in the corner of a bar at Happy Hour. It was distracting and a disrespect to Parker and Burns' work.
4.5 out of 5 stars