You know that painful gritty feeling in your eyes when you have hay fever? *heavy sigh* It isn’t always hay fever. If it transitions into feeling excruciatingly like iron filings in your eyes, take yourself off to the optometrist and get it treated. Quick smart. No mucking about. It’s a disorder affecting the cells in your eyes, and you will need drops and sticky creams involving steroids and specially designed eye heat pads at bedtime to fix it.
And that’s how I came to listen to Sue’s gift of this Cold Sassy Tree audiobook at bedtime. For the best part of the last fortnight I set up the next CD before glueing my eyelids together and I drifted off to sleep to the sound of Tom Parks reading this deceptively nostalgic story about a small turn-of-the-century town in the US state of Georgia.
The first few CDs focussed on the scandal engulfing the town. Narrated by 14-year-old Will Tweedy, the story explains how the gossips had a field day when his grandfather E. Rucker Blakeslee, proprietor of the general store, eloped with his milliner Miss Love Simpson just three weeks after his wife had died. Will, too young to understand everything, but old enough to be a keen observer, soon discovers that this is no love match but rather a marriage of convenience for both of them. It’s easy enough to deduce his reasons: Grandpa needs a wife the way that blokes did need wives in the days when women did all the home management. But Miss Love’s reasons are more opaque…
As the story progresses Will has (innocent) adventures with a girl, and a hair-raising narrow escape with a train, and so the reader is swept along in what seems like gentle nostalgia for a bygone age. But there is some careless racism involving African-American bit players in the story which made me wonder a bit… Olive Ann Burns published this in 1984, and it seemed surprising to my 21st century eyes that even in 1984 an author could be oblivious to the offence that must be caused by its indifferent representation of racial inequity. There’s also a lot of heavy-duty Christianity which became tiresome – perhaps it was authentic, but I felt that the author was playing to a particular type of audience in the south.
Or was she?
I was suddenly jerked wide-awake when the novel took a much darker tone. Will overhears the reason why Miss Love is content with an unconsummated marriage. The novel wraps up soon after that, with an ending most readers will anticipate given the age difference between the pair, but the questions remain. Is this a feel-good romance/coming-of-age story written by an author who was blind to the hypocrisy of the society she was representing, or did she create a very subtle story to expose those hypocrisies to an audience that needed to be lured in gently?
As Sue notes in her review, it’s not always easy to pick up on the details when listening to an audio book. (Especially when you’re half asleep when listening!) Sue also notes the representation of the ‘poor white trash’, the changing role of women and the signs of modernisation in the form of cars and so on. It’s fascinating to see the divergence in Goodreads reviews, from …a story that is a treasured friend… and … witty and touching … to … a long, boring soap opera about small minded, judgmental, gossipy people in a backwoods town that specializes in making a full blown scandal over every petty incident. It includes something for everyone: racism, sexism, chauvinism, religious prejudice, and “Yankeeism”…
I’m undecided about the author’s purpose, but I think that a modern reading of this book offers much food for thought.
Author: Olive Ann Burns
Title: Cold Sassy Tree
Narrator: Tom Parker
Publisher: Blackstone Audiobooks, 2005
Source: Gift of Sue from Whispering Gums, thanks Sue!