Death plays a prominent role in Cold Sassy Tree. Before the action of the novel begins, Rucker and Will are faced with the death of Mattie Lou, Rucker’s wife. Will himself has a near-death experience when he is caught on a train trestle and the train passes over him as he lies between the tracks. Later in the novel, Lightfoot’s father dies; Will’s uncle, Campbell Williams, commits suicide; and Rucker is shot during a robbery at the general store and later dies.
These events force Will to contemplate the meaning of death. After his grandmother dies, he reflects on the difference between being ‘‘in mourning’’ for someone’s death and actually mourning that person’s death. His thoughts that his mourning clothes will prevent him from fishing and other activities reflect an early immaturity, but the deaths of Camp and his grandfather lead to deeper and more dignified reflections on death. It is through Rucker that Will comes to examine death from a religious perspective. Rucker frequently ponders the issue of God’s involvement in human affairs and serves as a mentor to Will on such issues. Rucker has concluded that God does not involve himself directly in human matters and that no amount of prayer can persuade God to change his mind about anything, including death. Rather, humans can pray to God for strength to deal with life’s hardships. His lessons even rub off on Miss Love. In Chapter 48, for example, Miss Love says to Rucker,
“Tell Will that sometimes God has to say no for our own good, or to teach us something, or show His power. Sometimes it’s just not His will to give us a certain thing. Or He wants to test our faith and see if we trust Him no matter what.”
While death is depicted as a sad event, it also opens the possibility of renewal and new life. Rucker is able to find happiness with Miss Love, Loma is released from a marriage she hates and is able to write poetry and plays, and Miss Love will give birth to a new baby after Rucker’s death. In this sense, death gives rise to new possibilities, just as Cold Sassy ‘‘dies’’ and is ‘‘reborn’’ as Progressive City.
Modern Life and Technology
Cold Sassy Tree shows the introduction of more modern ways to the town. Hoyt Tweedy brings to the town its first automobile, a shiny new Cadillac. The car attracts a great deal of interest among the townspeople, most of whom have never even seen a car. Rucker operates an old-fashioned general store, but after his trip to New York, he and Miss Love decide to become auto dealers, and Miss Love’s business acumen is seen as more modern. The cars stand in contrast to the railroad, the older form of transportation that almost kills Will. Many people in Cold Sassy do not have telephones, but many do, and telephone service is spreading. Miss Love decides that for her birthday she wants indoor plumbing in Rucker’s house; Rucker agrees, and additionally he buys her a record player—again, something that most people in the town likely have never seen.
These items, though, are only the outward signs of modernity. More important are more modern attitudes. One clear example is the issue of women’s suffrage. Miss Love and Aunt Carrie are the only two women in town who support the right of women to vote. In this way they challenge the town’s old-fashioned prejudices. Another is the issue of racial prejudice. Will naively assumes that Queenie, the family’s African American cook, accepts her position in life, but Miss Love, who comes from outside Cold Sassy, convinces him that his views might be wrong and that Queenie suffers from discrimination. More generally, the relationship between Rucker and Miss Love challenges the old-fashioned attitudes of the townspeople—attitudes that Will Tweedy in part learns to question and outgrow. Will also acquires a deeper religious faith, one based not on rituals and outward show, as represented by his grandfather Tweedy, but on contemplation, God and the relationship between God and humanity.
At bottom, the entire novel depicts a society and culture on the cusp of new ways of thinking brought about by the advent of modern life—by the still new twentieth century. The old Cold Sassy is symbolized by the Fourth of July parade, with its Civil War–era Confederate flags. Cold Sassy still adheres to the traditions and values of the Old South at the time of the Civil War, but those traditions and values are challenged by Miss Love, a northerner. The old Cold Sassy is also symbolized by the sassafras tree; this old town is replaced by a new Cold Sassy, where the tree is cut down to make room for modern improvements and the town’s name is changed to Progressive City. However, the old Cold Sassy is not forgotten; Will still has his piece of the tree in 1914, when he tells the story of Cold Sassy and when the world changed forever with the start of World War I.
Closely related to the theme of modernity is that of social constraints. Cold Sassy is depicted as a closed-minded community where everyone pays attention to everyone else’s business and where people have strong feelings about social matters based on prejudice and tradition. When Rucker announces to his daughters that he is going to marry Miss Love, he knows that he is violating these social conventions and does not care. He is going to remarry when he wants to, not when ‘‘society’’ tells him it is acceptable. A counterpoint to Rucker is his daughters Mary Willis and Loma. They object to the marriage not because they believe that Miss Love is wrong for their father but because they believe that the marriage will make the family an object of ridicule in the town. They also worry that the townspeople will think that Miss Love is marrying Rucker for his money. Other characters, such as Effie Belle Tate, are representative of the social constraints of Cold Sassy. She is depicted as nosy, and when she catches Will kissing Lightfoot in the car at the cemetery, she feels compelled to drive Lightfoot away, scold Will, and tell his father what she witnessed. The townspeople believe that it is not proper to have a funeral service for Camp Williams because he committed suicide.
Will, as a young boy, does not understand these social proprieties. He does not understand, for example, why his grandfather cannot marry Miss Love when he wants to—and indeed he cannot understand why it would not have been possible for Rucker to loveMattie Lou andMiss Love at the same time. Will represents the overturning of social constraints: he accepts the marriage of Rucker and Miss Love. Rucker is a product of the past; he is a CivilWar veteran.Miss Love is a product of a more modern world. Their marriage and the birth of their baby suggest that old and new can blend, that social constraints can be overcome, and that people such as Will can grow and change to overcome their prejudices. In time, Miss Love becomes more accepted by the townspeople, and her use of the southern dialect ‘‘y’all’’ (‘‘you all’’) near the end of the novel, unusual for her because she speaks ‘‘properly,’’ suggests that she is becoming part of the fabric of the town.
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.