Monday, December 30, 2013

A window to days gone by

Sometimes I stumble upon a plain little book that has drifted about the periphery of my consciousness, and realize with wonder and delight that I’m reading a true classic. Cold Sassy Tree is one of those gems.

Narrated by Will Tweedy, the novel’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, the book is set in the small town of Cold Sassy, Georgia, in nineteen ought six. Will’s Grandma Blakeslee has just died, and the family is in mourning. Besides having to wear a black armband, Will has to sit inside and eschew anything fun, which includes missing 4th of July festivities. His Grandpa Enoch Rucker Blakeslee, however, sees no value in wasting time mourning. Three weeks after his beloved Mattie Lou’s passing, he announces his intent to marry Miss Love Simpson, the beautiful young milliner who works in his general store.

Well-written and strong on character development, Cold Sassy Tree is also a page-turner. When Grandpa goes off to get married, Will decides he’s had enough of mourning and sneaks away to go fishing. As he saunters back home along a train trestle, a train approaches, and he has to lie between the rails as it roars above him.

Throughout the book, Will bears witness to the danger of secrets not kept, the cruelty of class prejudice, and the transforming power of love.

Cold Sassy Tree was inspired by family stories told to its author, Olive Ann Burns. Published in 1984, the book was adapted into a movie in 1989, starring Richard Widmark as Grandpa Blakeslee, Faye Dunaway as Love Simpson, and Neil Patrick Harris as Will Tweedy. Composer Carlisle Floyd wrote an opera based on the book, which premiered in 2000. I hope to see both someday.

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