In 1914, the novel’s narrator, Will Tweedy, recalls events in Cold Sassy, Georgia, that took place primarily in the summer of 1906, when he was fourteen years old. On the night of July 5 that year, Will’s grandfather, Rucker Blakeslee, arrives at Will’s home to have a drink of corn whiskey; Rucker’s wife, Mattie Lou, had never allowed him to keep whiskey in the house. But Mattie Lou has been dead for three weeks. Rucker asks Will to gather his mother, Mary Willis, and his aunt, Loma Williams. When the women arrive, Rucker makes a startling announcement: he is going tomarryMiss Love Simpson, a hat maker who works at the general store he owns and who is young enough to be his daughter. Loma reminds Rucker of Mattie Lou’s recent death, but Rucker’s only reply is, ‘‘Well, good gosh a’mighty! She’s dead as she’ll ever be, ain’t she? Well, ain’t she?’’ After Rucker leaves, the two women express their outrage. Miss Love is a Yankee (a northerner), and the marriage will disgrace the family in the eyes of the town.
Will reflects on what has just happened. He recalls that Rucker lost a hand in a sawmill accident and that he needs someone to look after him. He thinks about mourning and reflects that there is a difference between being ‘‘in mourning’’ and actually mourning the loss of a loved one. He worries that his mourning clothes will prevent him from going fishing and taking part in other boyish activities. His reflections are interrupted when his father, Hoyt Tweedy, arrives to announce that Rucker and Miss Love have gone off to get married. Will then thinks about his grandfather, a quick-tempered, domineering old Confederate. He also thinks about Miss Love, whom he has always liked. Miss Love is unlike most of the women in Cold Sassy. She is pretty, wears colorful clothing, and designs fashionable hats. She advocates the right of women to vote. Will believes that Aunt Loma does not like Miss Love because she is jealous of Miss Love’s good looks. Finally, he reflects that he does not like his aunt Loma, who married Campbell ‘‘Camp’’ Williams to spite Rucker, her father, after he refused to allow her to pursue an acting career.
This group of chapters looks back at events surrounding Mattie Lou’s death. Will thinks about his grandmother and her passion for gardening. He remembers that her final illness began with a stroke. During her illness, Rucker took good care of her, but the only family member he allowed to visit her was Will. One day, Will stole into the room but backed out because his grandfather was crying. Later, Rucker appeared in the room with one of Mattie Lou’s roses as a reminder of their courtship. He asked Will to pray with him. In his prayer, Rucker asked God to forgive his sins against Mattie Lou.
Mattie Lou’s condition seemed to improve, but a week later it worsened, and she had hallucinations as Will sat by her bed. That night, she died, and Rucker seemed heartbroken. Mattie Lou had treated Miss Love with kindness when the younger woman was ill with the flu, so Miss Love wanted to return the kindness and cleaned the house for Rucker. On the morning of the funeral, Rucker asked Will to help him gather all of Mattie Lou’s roses. The two then took the roses to Mattie Lou’s grave, which they lined with a bed of roses. The day after the funeral, Rucker returned to work at his store, but he treated everyone coldly. Will’s recollection of past events concludes with the town’s Fourth of July parade. No U.S. flags were in evidence; all of the flags were Confederate Civil War flags. Participants in the parade included Civil War veterans, who normally would have been led by Rucker. However, Rucker declined to take part because of Mattie Lou’s death.
This group of chapters details Will’s near-death experience on the town’s railroad tracks. He decides that because Rucker has gotten married, the mourning period must be over, so he decides to go fishing. He takes along with him his dog, T.R., named after President Teddy Roosevelt. To get to the fishing creek, he has to pass through Mill Town, the area of Cold Sassy where poor laborers at the cotton mill live. Although the mill is a major contributor to the town’s economy, people look down on Mill Town residents, calling them ‘‘lintheads.’’ Will has feelings for one of Mill Town’s residents, Lightfoot McClendon, a girl in his class at school. Will hopes that he does not run into Hosie Roach, a much older boy from school who fights Will.
On impulse, Will decides to cross the train trestle over the creek. When he is halfway across, though, a train comes. As Will is about to dash to safety, his fishing pole becomes entangled. He lies down on the railroad bed between the tracks, and the train passes over him. Lightfoot appears to help him off the tracks. The train stops, and Will boards it to ride back to town. Back home, everyone is elated by Will’s escape. A crowd gathers at his home to talk about the incident, recall past train wrecks, and gossip about the marriage of Rucker and Miss Love. Rucker appears, and in the kitchen, Will tells Rucker about the train incident. The two then have a discussion about God’s will and the power of prayer. Rucker asks the family and guests to join him in prayer, astonishing them by asking God to help Miss Love realize that any good in him was because of Mattie Lou. Everyone hugs Miss Love except Loma, who leaves in a jealous huff.
These chapters include hints of Will’s adolescent development and his growing relationship with Miss Love. Will has a dream in which Lightfoot takes off her clothes just before being hit by a train. In the same dream, he sees himself running from the train, but his path is blocked by Aunt Loma. After Will awakens, he remembers why he hates Aunt Loma. His aunt is only six years older than he is, and when they were children they played together. But on Loma’s twelfth birthday, she broke all of his lead soldiers. He thinks of other people he hates, including his Grandfather Tweedy, a lazy farmer who does little more than spout religion from his porch.
Will goes to Rucker’s house to help Miss Love clean and go through Mattie Lou’s things. Before he announces his arrival, he watches Miss Love playing the piano and is aroused by the sight of her figure. He discovers that Miss Love has her own bedroom, so he concludes that her marriage with Rucker is a marriage of convenience. Rucker arrives and allows Miss Love to give him a haircut and shave off his beard. Will is then struck by how alike he and Rucker look. Later, Will asks Miss Love why she married his grandfather. He thinks that Miss Love will be offended by the question, but she is not. She replies that she married Rucker to keep house for him. In exchange, Rucker has promised to leave her the house and some money. The two also discuss Miss Love’s former boyfriend, Son Black. Will asks why she did not marry him; she replies that she has decided not to marry because of something bad that had happened to her in Texas, though she does not say what. Cold Sassy’s town gossips believe that she rejected Black because he had gotten Miss Love’s best friend pregnant.
A cowboy appears, who turns out to be Clayton McAllister, another of Miss Love’s old boyfriends. A neighborhood gossip, Miss Effie Belle Tate, sees McAllister kissing Miss Love passionately. Rucker arrives, and surprisingly, the two men get along. Rucker invites McAllister to spend the night, but McAllister declines. He leaves behind a saddle as a present for Miss Love. Rucker tells her that if she wants to marry McAllister, he would be willing to annul their own marriage. He asks her whether she would like to have a horse, and when she brightens at the prospect, Rucker sends Will to fetch a horse from a cousin in the country. Will decides to combine the errand with a camping trip. He visits his Grandpa Tweedy to borrow a wagon to use on the trip, which turns out to be a disaster. On the way back home, he makes up stories about his aunt Loma. After the stories are spread around town, Rucker scolds Will. Meanwhile, Miss Love has been removed from her position as piano player in the church because of her presumed improper behavior.
Everyone in town knows about the nature of Rucker and Miss Love’s marriage. Mary Willis tells Will that while Will was camping, Miss Love herself announced in the store where she works that she and Rucker were sleeping separately. This revelation is further evidence to the town that Miss Love married Rucker for his money. Loma’s resentment of Miss Love grows after Loma and her husband, Camp, visit Rucker’s house to lay claim to Mattie Lou’s piano and other items. Miss Love refuses to relinquish them. Will concludes that Miss Love has declared war on the family.
Will’s friendship with Miss Love continues to grow as he goes to Rucker’s house to help her train her horse. In their conversation about Queenie, the Tweedys’ black cook, Will learns that some of his assumptions about Queenie’s position may be untrue and naive and that she is the victim of racism. Will goes to Loma’s house to apologize for the stories that he told about her. There he is dismayed by how poorly she treats her husband. He is astonished to discover that she found the stories funny, and the two of them actually get along during the afternoon. Loma gives Will a journal and urges him to write, but Will is resolved to become a farmer.
Rucker has offered Hoyt and Mary Willis tickets for a trip to New York. Mary Willis is reluctant to go, still mourning the death of Mattie Lou. Just as she changes her mind, though, Rucker announces that he and Miss Love are going to use the tickets to go to New York to buy stock for the store. Rucker invites the entire town to a church service at his house. He invites Loomis, Queenie’s husband and an employee at the store, to preach at the service. Hoyt declines to attend the regular Sunday service at the Presbyterian church, which mystifies everyone until he appears on Sunday morning with a new Cadillac, the first automobile in Cold Sassy. After practicing driving for a week, Hoyt and Will offer rides to the townspeople, but Hoyt pointedly refuses to offer Miss Love a ride.
Miss Love begins to win friends in Cold Sassy. From New York, she sends postcards, telling the women of the dresses she has picked out for them. Will takes Lightfoot for a drive in the car. They park at a cemetery and talk. Lightfoot cries because of the death of her father. She cannot afford a grave marker for him, and her aunt has taken her out of school. Will kisses her passionately, imitating the kiss he saw Clayton McAllister give Miss Love. A nosy townswoman sees them kissing, forces Lightfoot to leave, and lectures Will.
Hoyt learns that Will and Lightfoot have been kissing and punishes Will by whipping him. After Rucker and Miss Love return from New York, Mary Willis invites them for dinner. At dinner, Rucker talks about the New York trip, particularly his newfound interest in automobiles. It also becomes clear that Rucker and Miss Love have become closer during the trip and that their marriage of convenience is evolving into a true marriage. Rucker and Miss Love tell Will that they have bought a car and that they intend to sell cars in Cold Sassy. Miss Love begins to put together a plan for selling the cars. Will is saddened that Lightfoot no longer attends school, but he is surprised that Hosie Roach, his former enemy, has become friendly with him.
Will begins to notice that Rucker and Miss Love are treating each other with a great deal of affection. As the three drive to the county fair, Will feels that he is intruding on them. After an accident that damages the car, the three spend the night at the home of a local family. Will and Rucker share a room, but during the night Will hears Rucker going into Miss Love’s room and overhears their conversation. Miss Love rejects Rucker’s romantic overtures, saying that she has a secret that would make her repellent to any man. She confesses that when she was twelve, her mother was dying. Her father was a drunk and accused her mother of having an affair. He claimed that Miss Love was not his daughter, and to prove it, he raped her.
Rucker wins a drawing that allows him to rename the town’s hotel. The name he chooses is the Rucker Blakeslee Hotel. Rucker spends more time at home with Miss Love; although he says that he is ill, and indeed has a cough, his appetite is unaffected. He and Miss Love go on buggy rides together and seem to become much closer. Aunt Loma directs the school’s Christmas play, but Will plays a practical joke by releasing rats in the school auditorium. He later apologizes to Loma, and he is gratified that his relationship with Loma is back on its old footing of hatred.
Camp sends Loma away on a trip to Athens, Georgia, claiming that he wants to use her absence as an opportunity to fix the plumbing. He asks Hoyt to help him. When Hoyt and Will arrive at Camp’s home, they hear a gun blast and discover that Camp, who always felt like a failure, has committed suicide. Some townspeople believe that Camp does not deserve a funeral because he committed suicide, but Rucker arranges a funeral and insists that Camp be buried at Mattie Lou’s feet in the family plot. Loma, with her baby, Campbell Junior, moves into Will’s home, where she gets help with the baby and uses her time to write plays and poetry. Miss Love’s birthday is on Valentine’s Day, and to celebrate her birthday, she resolves to get indoor plumbing. Rucker agrees, and in addition he buys her a record player. Rucker hires Hosie Roach to replace Camp at the store and allows Loma to work at the store as a milliner (hat maker). On his fifteenth birthday, Will shaves for the first time. He runs into Lightfoot, who tells him that she is going to marry Hosie.
During a robbery at his store, Rucker is shot. As he is convalescing, Will overhears him conversing with Miss Love about Jesus and whether God answers prayers. He says to Miss Love, ‘‘They ain’t no gar’ntee thet we ain’t go’n have no troubles and ain’t go’n die. But a God’ll forgive us if’n we ast Him to.’’ They also discuss changing the name of the town to something more up-to-date. Will sees Rucker and Miss Love kissing and concludes that their union is a real marriage. Rucker’s condition takes a turn for the worse when he catches pneumonia and begins to hallucinate. Miss Love reveals that she is pregnant with Rucker’s child. Later that day, Rucker dies. He has ordered that his funeral be a simple one. He has left his house and some money to Miss Love, and he has divided his other money and property between Mary Willis and Loma, who, Will reflects, are likely to be upset that some of the money will go to Miss Love’s child. Rucker has appointed Hoyt manager of the store and left Will money for college that he can collect if he works at the store for ten years.
Miss Love decides to remain in Cold Sassy so that her child can grow up around family. She tells Will that she hopes he can be a father to the child. A month later, the town changes its name to Progressive City. To make room for improvements in the town, the Cold Sassy tree, a sassafras tree, is cut down. People, including Will, take chunks of the tree’s roots to make tea. Years later, Will notes that he still has his piece of the tree, along with the newspaper story of the incident on the train trestle; a photo of Rucker, Miss Love, and himself; and a buckeye that Lightfoot gave him as a memento to remember her by.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Olive Ann Burns, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.