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Study Guide for Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

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Olive Ann Burns - BIOGRAPHY

Olive Ann Burns was born on a rural family farm in Banks County, Georgia on July 17, 1924. She was the youngest of four children. Her father Arnold Burns had farmed the same land passed down from his great grandfather, but as the financial disaster of the Great Depression took hold, the family could no longer manage and were forced to sell the family farm.

Olive attended high school in Macon, Georgia and was inspired by her ninth grade teacher to begin writing. She worked for her school newspaper. She attended Mercer University in Macon, and then transferred to the University of North Carolina after her sophomore year. She graduated college in 1946 with a degree in journalism.

Shortly after graduation, she took a job as a staff writer for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine, where she worked until 1957. In 1956, she married her husband, Andy Sparks, who was also a writer at the magazine. They had two children together.

For seven years, Burns wrote an advice column for the Atlanta Journal under the name "Amy Larkin." She gave it up in 1967 and returned to writing part-time for the journal. In 1971 her mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which inspired Burns to begin writing the family history, telling the story from her father's perspective. The line in her novel, "Gosh a'mighty, she's dead as she'll ever be, ain't she?" was, according to her father, an actual comment by her own grandfather who had remarried three weeks after the death of his first wife. Grandpa Blakeslee in the novel Cold Sassy Tree was based on her own Grandpa Powers, and the character of Hoyt Tweedy was based on her own father. All the characters in the novel, however, are fictional. Commerce, a town in Georgia, is said to be the model for the town Cold Sassy, as that is the place where her father grew up.

Burns began writing Cold Sassy Tree in 1975, when she was diagnosed with cancer herself. She used the project to keep her mind off her illness, working on the book for over 8 years. The novel was published in 1984 and was an instant success, receiving critical praise. Burns began writing a sequel, Leaving Cold Sassy, but her cancer reappeared. She battled cancer for over 10 years in declining health and died from congestive heart failure at the age of 66 on July 4, 1990. Her unfinished Leaving Cold Sassy, was published posthumously.

Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides, said Burns' book was 'one of the best portraits of small town southern life ever written.


Burns novel is significant for its literary quality more than its historical value. She took advantage of her own experience as a daughter of a financially ruined farmer as well as what she knew of attitudes and social values of small town southerners. Although the story is basically a "coming of age" story, it also gives an accurate portrait of relationships in a place where people know everything about each other and are struggling to maintain their positions in a stratified community on the verge of change.

She said herself that she interviewed a lot of people and tried to capture their voices, using their words to create characters who have unique rhythms to their speech. She has created a unique work of art that displays the racist attitudes of the people, yet is not itself a racist novel. The characters have more than enough prejudice against each other and especially against the mill town people, but the narrative voice itself seems removed from that prejudice. Her involved narrator tells his story with an educated sense of grammar and diction, but is perfectly at ease when repeating the words of the less educated people of his community. The tone, a blend of objectivity and humor, creates a feeling of "reporting," making the people seem as though they belong in a newspaper rather than a novel. In short, the novel is completely believable and completely accessible. Although the setting is early 1900s, the experiences, observations and feelings are ones with which young adults of any time period could relate.


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Ruff, Dr. K.. "TheBestNotes on Cold Sassy Tree". . 09 May 2017