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Study Guide for Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

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Will Tweedy

Will is the involved narrator of the story, and protagonist in his own act of story telling which involves about a year and a half of simply growing up in a small town. He is Rucker's favorite and is included with him for most of the events that take place. He is 13 years old when the story begins and is primarily concerned with the inconvenience of having to be in mourning when he would rather go fishing. Nevertheless, he is a deeply sensitive boy and genuinely cared for his grandmother, a fact he reveals when he discusses the difference between being "in" mourning and actually "mourning."

Will knows that he is a lot like his grandfather, and wants to be like his grandfather in certain ways. However, even though he doesn't say so to his grandfather's face, he also sees the irony in much of the older man's behavior and doesn't agree with him about everything he does. For one thing, Will wants to be a farmer, not a shopkeeper. He also agrees with his family that Grandpa is wrong to marry someone only three weeks after Granny's death, but because he likes Love Simpson himself, and because Love explains that it is a purely platonic arrangement, Will accepts it and even attempts to defend Love against the wrath of the town.

Along with trying to cover for and defend his grandfather and Miss Love, Will himself is growing up. It is partly the affect of puberty that attracts him to Miss Love, but he is also attracted to Lightfoot McClendon, the mill town girl. Will is often caught between his feelings for either Lightfoot or for Love and his grandfather and his own family's expectations. He wants to do the things they have taught him are "right" for the most part, but he is also a very normal teenage boy and engages in various pranks; he endures the whippings without remorse, feeling that they are well worth while for the fun he has.

Will does not present himself or his family members as paragons of perfection, nor does he bemoan the "evils" of his society. The injustices and human faults he presents are simply those that might be found in any small town; he discusses his family and his society in a tone that is straight-forward, honest-at least in the mind of a young teenage boy- and humorous.

Rucker Blakeslee

Rucker is the protagonist of Will's story and figure about whom the town revolves, both because of his natural magnetism and because he owns what seems to be one of the primary business of the town. He and his family are the richest people in town and therefore are expected to be the examples of respectability and propriety.

Regardless of his position, Rucker is the type of person who will find a way to do anything he wants to do, mostly in the open and in spite of his family. However, he is not above subterfuge as we see with his hidden whiskey in Mary Willis' pantry. Even as an adult, he will play a practical joke whenever he gets a chance to get even with someone he thinks has slighted him, as when he suggests his own name for the new name of Mr. Crummy's store-and wins the subsequent name drawing.

Blakeslee has a hidden side, however, one which only Will and Miss Love see. While he deeply loved his wife, when he could no longer share her bed, he grew lonely. His attraction to Miss Love wasn't planned, but neither was it something he could deny to himself, even though he kept his feelings hidden from everyone else. He wants a few more years of love and companionship badly enough to flaunt tradition and marry her without waiting for the expected year of mourning. He knows the scandal he will create, but he also knows the influence he has over Cold Sassy. They may not like what he does, but they depend on him for much of their livelihood, so they will not openly oppose him. Perhaps it is a selfish streak in him that prevents him from seeing what Miss Love will have to endure and enables him to ignore the embarrassment he causes his family. And then again, perhaps he himself sees the foolishness of some of the social mores with which the people have burdened themselves.

Rucker is also a religious man, but neither in the showy, hypocritical way of many of the women of the town, nor in the burdensome fundamentalist way that tries to attach some sort of divine significance to even the most trivial events. Rather, his religion is a quiet practical faith of doing good to fellow man and trusting God to help one accept and even triumph over whatever life has to offer. He believes that there is a lot more to trusting God than just believing he controls life and death, but at the same time, God endowed people with brains and expects them to use them.

Finally, although Rucker is the protagonist of Will's supreme story telling endeavor, he is almost entirely a static, though complex, character. He really doesn't change much through the course of the novel. Rather he is like a rock in the middle of the current that is Cold Sassy. The lives of the people sweep around him, and in the process of contact with him, they are the ones who change.

Marie Willis Tweedy

Rucker's oldest daughter and Will's mother. Mary Willis is the polar opposite of her father. Scandal is a fearful thing to her whether it be gossip about not showing up to church or the more serious failure to observe the social mores. Her response to anything negative is to get a headache, which happens frequently once Rucker marries Love. She seems to be a remnant of the old south with a life of relative ease. She has a house servant, Queenie to cook and clean and help with the children and Queenie's husband Loomis to drive their wagon and help with anything that needs to be done outside. Her own husband Hoyt works in the store with Rucker in what seems to be a partnership, although it is never explicitly identified thus. She assumes that when her father dies, she and her sister Loma will inherit the store.

Mary is a static character. We see little of her except when she is disciplining Will or reacting in horror over Rucker's antics. In spite of her adherence to propriety, she is the one who would be more accepting of Love, perhaps out of fear of her father. When Rucker and Love return from New York, she takes the initiative of inviting them to the house for supper. However, she can't bend far enough to approve of her father actually having a good time.

Loma Williams

Rucker's other daughter, and Will's aunt. A bitter, angry character, Loma is actually a good foil for Rucker. She is as outspoken for social custom as he is visually in contradiction of them. Nevertheless, it is not really her father's actions that make her the character she is. She is a great deal like him in that she too likes to be the center of attention. She has at least some college, although it isn't clear whether she ever finished. She has enough to know how to speak good grammar and at one time wanted to be an actress. When Rucker refused to let her join an acting company because he considered the troupe beneath them, she married a worthless indecisive college boy, Will Campbell, out of spite. Although Will loves her, he is incapable of earning a good living. Since they don't have money for servants, Loma has to take care of her own house and child, so her dreams of writing and acting will always be nothing but dreams. She sees her sister and sister's husband with a good living, even to having two bathrooms in their home, while she and Camp barely get by and that on Rucker's generosity. It isn't the life she had wanted for herself, and it has created a love/hate relationship between her and her father. She vents her despair with a bitter, vengeful attitude.

We get one glimpse during the story of the kind of person Loma could have been. Will's stories about her are so outrageous that there is no danger of anyone believing them, so she simply enjoys the humor with the rest of the town. When Will visits her to apologize, instead of reacting angrily, she acts out his story and the two have a good laugh. She surprises him and the reader with her sense of humor and creativity and her appreciation for a good story. She sees the writer in him and encourages him to take advantage of opportunities that never came her way.

Toward the end of the story, Loma begins to mellow even toward Love. Of course, Love makes the first move in asking to have Loma in the store as a milliner in training. However, it gives Loma a chance to use her imagination and to socialize with the people. It is ironic that she is even willing to take the job as earlier in the story Will explains that a milliner was considered low class.

Love Simpson

The milliner sent to Rucker's store. She is trained and sent by a company in Boston when Rucker gets the idea that he would like to have a milliner in his store. Thus she is a Yankee and young. Although she says nothing to anyone other than Will, Love sees the little discrepancies of the post war south, the daily acts of racial and sexual bias that they don't see because such things are a part of their lives.

Love is friendly, but lonely with her own tale of abuse and lingering inhibitions. After being raped by her own father and subsequently dumped by her fiancé, she has convinced herself that she is "tainted" and that God doesn't intend for her to ever get married. She keeps herself aloof from the people in town, although she has the correct number of invitations to dinner and other functions. People like her, but consider her the outsider.

In spite of her apparent distance and self-control, Love wants a family and a home more than anything else. She takes advantage of opportunities to try to belong; she plays the piano in the Methodist church, and when Granny dies, she shows up and volunteers to help clean the house, serve food and keep the dishes washed for the never-ending stream of visitors who attend the wake. She does not, however, react eagerly at the chance to marry Rucker Blakeslee. She warns him about the gossip that will result, but he doesn't care. She says she would have refused him if she had ever had any idea that he had romantic feelings for him, but she will finally marry him as a housekeeper sleeping in a separate room, and with the house as her eventual pay. To the town, it makes her seem mercenary, but she isn't really. She simply is a bit more modern in her thinking than the people of Cold Sassy.

Love continues making gestures to win the people over and seems as successful as she will ever be with her postcards telling people of the goods she is bringing them from New York. She has a flare for business, but also knows when to stay out of the way as she does when Rucker gets his new car.

Love eventually melts under the influence of Rucker's courtship. When she sees that he desperately loves her and that no childhood tragedy is going to drive him away from her, she can't help but respond and love him in return.


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