THE TOWN Cold Sassy Tree in Georgia does not exist -- never did. But any reader who has the good fortune to open Olive Ann Burns' first novel will have to keep reminding himself of that fact. The characters of this gossipy, small southern haven, captured at the turn of the century, are summoned forth from an imagination so fertile, the town's history is disclosed with such exuberance and detail, that the very force of the prose could put Cold Sassy on the map.
Cold Sassy is rich with classic southern folk: housewives bearing cakes (frosted coconut is a favorite) in a vain attempt to justify their continual comings and goings; hired hands who burst into gospel music; young boys who spend the day at the fishing hole.
But it is not a southern clich,e, with everyone dripping corn bread and deep-fried hokum. There's a tough young suffragette in town who doesn't take her husband's name or his bed when they marry, and a deacon of the church who drives a brand new red Cadillac (move over Bruce Springsteen). But what truly sets the town apart is its own self-awareness, a sharp, intelligent ability to look within and criticize its foibles that is embodied in the narrator, a 14-year-old boy named Will Tweedy.
Will is the eyes and ears of a town, quite a mission considering that Cold Sassy has some nasty scandals and a tongue-wagging populace that just won't let a visit go unnoticed, a change in dress or hairdo go unremarked. As the novel opens, Will's grandfather, Grandpa Blakeslee, the town's store owner and leading citizen, sets the neighbors spinning by marrying a woman 20 years younger -- this event only three weeks after his wife of 35 years has died, been widely eulogized, been buried amid blankets of roses and (it is well known) gone directly to heaven.
Cold Sassy does not suffer this scandal in tight-lipped disapproval. War is declared on the high-spirited new bride, Miss Love Simpson, previously the milliner in Grandpa Blakeslee's store.
It falls to Will, his grandfather's favorite, to become the mouthpiece for the ostracized newlyweds, who bring Will into their confidence partly to let the town know the nature of their relationship: Theirs is a marriage of convenience, they allege. Miss Simpson, who insists on keeping her maiden name, is nothing more than a housekeeper for Mr. Blakeslee; she makes it clear that she sleeps in the guest room. In turn, Mr. Blakeslee has willed her his house in payment for her services. It is a business arrangement, they insist, and Will believes them. But he cannot help but notice the gleam in his grandfather's eye.
Caught in the crossfire between the rest of his family, Cold Sassy and the scandalous couple, Will is a brilliant fusion of Good Boy and Bad Boy. He is devoted to his grandfather -- but partly because he is flushed and fascinated with the flutterings of "Miss Love." He's got boyishly charming practical jokes and downright malicious ones (unleashing a cage of rats in the middle of his Aunt Loma's production of the annual Christmas play). He is teeming with adolescence, yet he is also a sophisticted and astute observer of adults, Cold Sassy and the South at large. And in a small southern town where doors are always unlatched and walls are thin, his transmigrations into the adult world make him sadly privy to more deep, dark adult secrets than even he cares to know.
Cold Sassy Tree is not a dear sweet southern story, although it is certainly rich with emotion, humor and tenderness. It is not fueled by mere blatherings of southern spinsters on antebellum porches. It is a novel about an old man growing young, a young man growing up, and the modern age coming to a small southern town, bringing with it violence and sadness, often in the name of progress.
There is no way to know how Olive Ann Burns, a 60-year-old woman, has so convincingly captured the voice of a 14-year-old boy. Her energy is tireless for keeping Will charged with his very distinct personality. It could be that the voice of this rich young narrator is flawless because the stories of the people of Cold Sassy are so much a part of Burns -- the characters are rooted in stories told to her about her own relatives. It could be that Will brings the town to life because Burns grew up in Commerce, Georgia, which inspired the town of Cold Sassy. Or it could be that Will Tweedy is one of those rare literary characters who is so perfectly created that his existence can be credited only to magic.