Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 30, 2017

Cold Sassy Tree (1984), by Olive Ann Burns, read by Tom Parker

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, froma story that is a treasured friend… and … witty and touchingto … 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, first published 1984
ISBN: 9780786180486
Source: Gift of Sue from Whispering Gums, thanks Sue!


  1. I hope everything works out well with your eye problem, Lisa. My heart goes out to you. What a treatment! Between glaucoma and dry eye, I use eye drops three times a day, but that’s nothing compared to what you have to do.


    • I have my fingers crossed, there is a bit of an improvement but as soon as I slack off with the treatment, it comes back. *chuckle* I’m going to need a lot of audio books if this keeps up, I’m listening to Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Ruth’ at the moment:)
      (And good luck with yours, my optometrist is always nagging me about what can happen if I neglect my dry eye routine as well.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lisa, you need a medal – still writing great reviews under pain and discomfort but thank goodness for audio books. Take care, my dear friend – glad you did see a specialist and yes, please follow orders. I’ll be tuning in while travelling so need your insightful reviews to keep me grounded and being up-to-date with the literary scene when I return:)


    • *chuckle* I am flattered that you plan to do that, but I won’t be at all surprised if you find better things to do with your time when you’re away! I hope you’ll be posting your adventures (and photos) on FB for a start!


  3. Ah, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth. An interesting book, particularly given the Christianity issue. I look forward to your post on that. As for Cold Sass Tree, yes, very fair questions. As you say, given when she wrote it, it’s interesting to think about her intentions but my guess is that she wanted her readers to see and think about the issues she raised. The one she’s least clear on, though, is the race one.

    But, poor you with your eyes. I had a very unpleasant eye issue last year that lasted through winter, though the treatment wasn’t as challenging as yours. And then recently two friends, a couple in our age range, gave both had unpleasant eye conditions. As you say, we need to get them checked promptly. This thing older has it’s challenges, eh! I hope yours is mending quickly.


  4. I’m looking forward to your ‘Ruth’ too. But this review gets back to the central problem of historical fiction in Aust and US – how to authentically represent racism which is ingrained in the society being described, but which the author might find repugnant.


    • Yes, the same issue arose when reading Hella Haasse’s nostalgia for colonial plantation life in the Dutch East Indies now Indonesia.


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