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Study Guide for Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

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After Grannie and Love elope, the gossip begins. Effie Belle Tate claims she knew Miss Love had eyes for Rucker all along. This is the polar switch from the complimentary regard Effie had expressed for Miss Love earlier. Love had worked tirelessly to clean and wash dishes and help the family during the preparations for Mattie Lou's funeral. Suddenly, Love's efforts seem laden with ulterior motive.

Moving backwards in time a bit, Will describes his grandmother's funeral. With Will's help, Grandpa cuts all the rosebuds in Granny's garden and threads them into croker or burlap sacks to make blankets of roses which they use to line the grave. Grandpa explained that Granny once told him she wouldn't even mind dying if she could be put on a blanket of roses. Grandpa's determination and dedication in fulfilling Mattie Lou's dying wish convinces Will that marrying Love had nothing to do with not loving Granny or respecting the dead. Grandpa just needed a cheap cook.


Love's actions are a reflection of her own secret longings to be a part of a family, to have kinfolks who care about her. It is probably no accident that she wants to be a part of the most important family of the town, but isn't really a negative note either. She may even have some latent feelings for Rucker that she has not acknowledged even to herself. In any case, she is young and without any responsibilities other than her job, so she has nothing but time on her hands and is quite capable of stepping in to fulfill a need when she sees it.

Roses are symbolic of love which transcends even death; they are also symbolic of secrecy, discretion, and, in some traditions, comfort and generosity. All of their meanings, except possibly generosity, could be said to apply to Rucker, and yet, while he is thrifty and won't spend a nickel more than he can get away with, he sees to the needs of his family even to the point of giving a job to a person who really isn't worth hiring.



Rucker Blakeslee's last action on behalf of his wife is to return home and read the notes about himself and Granny from the family Bible. Then he writes the date of Mattie Lou's death.

Rucker returns to work at the store the following day which draws criticism from the family, but his obvious unhappiness prevents anyone from openly confronting him. He refuses to talk about Granny and is cruel to Uncle Camp, ordering him to complete humiliating busy work. At night he goes to the cemetery where people believe he is grieving himself to death.

The women of the family spend hours sitting at each other's houses where they discuss the funeral and Mattie's life. They discuss her workload, implying that Rucker worked her to death and should have hired a housekeeper or cook. They forget that Will himself was present nearly every day to help Granny with chores and run errands.

Will finds a sense of humor in spite of the air of mourning and criticism that seems to permeate the town. His Aunt Carrie-who isn't really his Aunt but had been close to his great grandmother-had decided that his sister Mary Toy needed to have her red hair dyed a more appropriate color for Granny's funeral. Accordingly, Carrie tries to dye Mary Toy's hair black, but in the heat of the day, Mary Toy begins sweating. When the black liquid is washed away, her hair is purple. Cousin Temp comes the rescue by inviting Mary Toy to come and stay at the farm until the color grows out.

Will finally goes to Granny's house, hoping she will seem more alive there. Instead he finds the house in shambles from dirty dishes in the kitchen to dirty clothes and newspapers littering the floor. He spends some time cleaning, then goes into Granny's garden where he suddenly understands the difference between being "in mourning" and genuinely mourning a loss. To be in mourning, he says, is to wear a black arm band and to sit around talking to people who call on you and express their sympathies. For a couple of days, it makes you feel important, but then it wears off and is just boring.

To actually mourn, on the other hand, is "to be eaten alive with homesickness for the person." He thinks about all the things that his grandmother never had-like electricity or an indoor toilet. The only improvement Rucker ever made to the house was to move the outdoor kitchen and attach it, and to drill a well just off the porch where water could be drawn without having to go out in the yard. He also put in a new outhouse, but although much of the money belonged to Granny on account of the Toy family farmland Rucker had sold off, he never spent any more of it on the house. But, Will notes, if she died without getting a lot of things she wanted, she still had sixty varieties of roses and nearly everyone in Cold Sassy owed her for a relative nursed back to health or a body laid out for burial.

Granny used to tell stories of unusual circumstances surrounding the deaths of various people who had passed through her life. Will feels a little sorry that her death was so ordinary, but then decides that it wasn't so ordinary after all since her husband got married just three weeks after she went to her grave.


Even while defending his grandfather, Will makes him seem like a bit of a miser. Rucker is, however, a person who doesn't accept change very well. The time period is the turn of the century, just as many modern conveniences are becoming available to the average home. Running water, flush toilets, and electric lights make people's lives easier and separate the well off from the dirt poor. Rucker has always lived with oil lamps, privies and outdoor wells. He doesn't consider himself cruel or stingy. He just doesn't see the need for doing things any differently, and it doesn't occur to him that Granny would seriously want that much of a change either.


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