Cold Sassy Tree: Theme Analysis
Love and Tolerance
A main theme is that the narrow-mindedness of Cold Sassy has to give way to a greater generosity and tolerance. Two characters carry this theme: Love Simpson and Grandpa Blakeslee. Will Tweedy learns from these two and writes down their lessons.
Granny Blakeslee is a loving person, but she has no personal power and is clearly rowing upstream all her life: “Mr. Blakeslee is a good decent man. But Mattie Lou done all the givin’” (Chpt.14, p. 89). Grandpa runs over her as he does anyone else in his way. He does not give her a birthday present or any modern conveniences in her house, though he can afford it. He gives her a nice funeral in remorse for his stinginess and his guilt about being in love with another woman. It takes Love Simpson to change his rough ways.
Miss Love’s name is symbolic. She is the force that brings tolerance to town. She is loving, generous and full of life. The reaction of other characters to her proves their worth or closed-mindedness. She is befriended by Will but persecuted by Loma and Mary Willis and the town for being an outsider, for being a Yankee from Baltimore, for being beautiful and sexy, for her liberal ideas, and for marrying an old man three weeks after his wife dies. People judge her without knowing her. If she wears black, she is pretentious; if she wears red, she is a hussy.
Love’s youth and exuberance turns Grandpa’s life around. He begins to understand his meanness and tries to make up for the mistakes in his life by making Love happy. When the Methodist church rejects her, Grandpa sticks up for Love and holds his own service at home, saying: “I’m tired of’m tryin’ to scare folks to Heaven with all thet hellfire and damnation. I want to hear bout the lovin’, forgivin’ God thet Jesus preached” (Chpt. 20, p. 132). Grandpa also tries to make it up to his son-in-law Camp after he commits suicide by honoring him and giving him a proper burial, despite the belief that suicides are damned. He teaches Will that “Hit’s God’s will for us to be good and do good, love one another, be forgivin’” (Chpt. 16, p. 99).
Miss Love gives Will new ways to understand the marginal people in Cold Sassy, such as women and Negroes (to use the term that was in currency at the time). Will is also taught social tolerance by Lightfoot, the Mill Town girl, considered white trash. Grandpa surprises Will by giving Hosie Roach, a mill worker, a job in the store. The loving and generous acts in Cold Sassy begin to create a counter current to the stagnant prejudice there.
Life and Death
Will goes through trauma in the years 1906-07. His best friend Bluford Jackson dies, Granny dies, Will gets run over by a train, Camp kills himself, and Grandpa dies. Will begins to question the meaning of life and death. As a member of the Presbyterian church, Will knows the official answers of religion. Grandpa Tweedy grills him on the catechism every time they meet: “What is God, what is a lie?” He is expected to give the correct memorized answer. His mother, Mary Willis, only knows what is proper, and “Papa worried all the time about sin” (Chpt. 11, p. 73).
Will Tweedy learns the real wisdom from his Grandpa Blakeslee, because Grandpa has a comforting and common sense religion. The Presbyterians try to tell Will that he escaped death from the train, because it was predestined by God. Grandpa tells him he lived because he had brains and fell flat under the train: “God always wants us to live if’n we can . . . They’s a heap more to God’s will than death, disappoint-ment, and like thet” (Chpt. 16, pp. 98-99). When Granny dies, Grandpa tells Will that “we got to accept dyin’ in exchange for livin’ and workin’, and havin’ folks like Miss Mattie Lou to love” (Chpt.6, p. 35). Grandpa’s faith is not fancy or complicated with doctrine. He prays out loud to God as if he is an old friend. This helps Will to feel the presence of God: “Grandpa had made the Lord seem so real” (Chpt. 16, p. 100).
Grandpa inspires Will to get through this tough time in his life in two ways; first, by the example of loving Love Simpson with his whole heart, and then by dying with his whole heart. Will spies on the love scenes between Love and his Grandpa, watching them work out their differences. Even as Grandpa is dying, he and Love are lying on the bed together, sharing their thoughts and feeling God’s presence as their way of praying. Grandpa dies, but he leaves a legacy: his wisdom and a new baby. In this way, Will understands there is life and death, and continuity. Grandpa tells him: “If’n you live, Will Tweedy, you go’n be tempted, and you go’n suffer, and you go’n die. Ain’t no way out of it. But with the Lord’s hep, you can stand up to temptation, and live th’ew the bad times, and look Death in the eye” (Chpt.27, p. 189).
Freedom and Independence
Grandpa personifies the best of the town to his grandson. Will calls him, “the grand duke of Cold Sassy” (Chpt. 42, p. 315) and claims he is “equal to anything” (Chpt. 16, p. 101). He likes the way Grandpa stands up for what he believes in. Love Simpson likes the same quality when he proposes to her three weeks after his wife dies: “he went on to say he’d lived fifty-nine years by other people’s rules—‘but from now on, I’m a-go’n do what I dang want to. Startin’ with marryin’ you, Miss Love” (Chpt. 20, p. 133). Will tells her that Grandpa takes the forbidden drink of whisky first thing each morning “to prove he’s got a right to” (Chpt.20, p. 135).
One reason Grandpa feels sure of himself is his faith in life and in God. Will recounts how Grandpa talks out loud to God the way he talks to other people, making God his intimate friend. Grandpa assures Will “Life bullies us, son, but God don’t” (Chpt. 16, p. 97). With God on his side, Grandpa is not afraid of the opinion of the town folk. This does not mean he won’t admit mistakes. He feels sorry for his treatment of Mattie Lou and Camp, and he feels stupid at his pride when he shows off to the burglars. But Rucker Blakeslee, flawed though he is, does not hold back from living or dying or saying what’s on his mind.
He is the one who decides to have the Confederate parade on the Fourth of July to express his distaste for Yankees, and yet he marries one to the scorn of his neighbors: “Married that Yankee and didn’t live a year!” (Chpt. 50, p. 387). He not only has a funeral for Camp in defiance of religious tradition, but he is also able to persuade people to come to it. Grandpa’s funeral is his last statement of independence to the town, for he makes them hold a party and won’t let them wear black. He says the first letters of funeral spell “fun.” He orders Big Loomis, a black preacher, to preach at his burial.
Grandpa’s independence allows Love to be herself and come to life as well. She plays “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-de-Ay” on the piano and dances on Sunday for their private church service. Love is an independent thinker in her opinion of women’s rights and the position of black people in the South. More importantly, Grandpa clears Love of the trauma that ruined her life by accepting her as “pure,” even though she was molested by her father.