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Study Guide for Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

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All of the important characters in the story crave some sort of love and/or acceptance and behave in the ways they do out of that need. Will himself is suffering the pangs of puberty and is intelligent enough to know there is nothing wrong with Lightfoot, but he also wants his grandfather's approval, and, to avoid punishment, must have his parents' approval.

Lightfoot wants to attend school and build a more productive life for herself, but the poverty of the mill town interferes. She will settle for Hosie Roach because he has a means of taking care of her, and because he is one of her own people. She would never be accepted by the Blakeslee family.

Love Simpson thinks romantic love is forbidden to her, but she wants a family that will accept her without judging her. Loma and Mary Willis are driven by their individual needs for social approval and the need to maintain a certain appearance of southern aristocrats.

Rucker Blakeslee is a lonely old man who has long had a secret love for a forbidden lady. He acts on the love when he is able to, believing that if he doesn't act fast, he will lose his chance. There is no danger of the family rejecting him as they all depend on him, but he has to cope with his own guilt over bringing the wrath of the family onto Love.

Loma Williams needs to belong to the family circle and would be terrified of any scandal that might ostracize her, but she is also trapped by it. She would have escaped and done something different at one time if she could have, but now her very well being is dependent on being a part of the most important family in Cold Sassy. It is a constant irritation to her that she is merely an appendage while her sister Mary Willis is the woman that all the other women look up to.

Growing up

Will sympathizes with Love because he is attracted to her himself. He is also caught between his family's expectations and his own observations of things that don't always make sense or just aren't right. He is a bit more mature than the rest of his friends and shows that when he rejects their "dirty" talk about Lightfoot and changes the subject to prevent them from making sexual comments about Love. Typical of the effects of puberty, Will is fascinated by McAllister's kissing, but embarrassed by even his own ideas that hint at a more explicit sexuality.

Will also makes comparisons among the men in his life. He knows that his grandfather just assumes Will is going to take over the store someday, but he wants to go to agricultural school and become a professional farmer instead. There are other ways, too, in which he does not want to be like his grandfather. He recognizes that his own father is more practical, and perhaps even more to be admired, but as a kid, his grandfather is just more fun.

Part of growing up for Will is that he will lose his first love to his worst enemy, and then have to work in the store with that enemy as well. He will also gradually learn to at least tolerate his Aunt Loma, although he has played such cruel tricks on her that they will never be close. It is mark of maturing that, after all the cruel jokes he has played on Loma through the years, he is able to recognize that turning the cage of rats loose in her Christmas play was going to far. He is genuinely sorry for the first time in his life.


The people of Cold Sassy think they are above prejudice. As a narrator, Will defends his people, but the adult voice makes it clear that he saw those inconsistencies. The wealthy families have black servants who get paid in the form of room, board, and small amount of cash. But the servants eat in the kitchen, apart from the family, and use quart jars to drink from and discarded tin pie pans to hold their food. They never ask whether the black people would like to be able to use the good china-it's just the way it is.

An even more obvious prejudice shows in the town's attitude toward the people who work at the cotton mill outside of town. The mill wages are so pitiful that nearly every member in the family has to work in order to supply the bare necessities. The people don't have access to adequate water, so their houses are dirty and the people themselves often carry lice. They aren't bad people, but because of their circumstances are untouchable. When Will gets caught kissing Lightfoot, his parents punish him, but the people in the town immediately assume that the "mill girl" was at fault and led him into the cemetery where she tricked him into kissing her. Will sees how ridiculous the accusations is, but has no easy way of defending her.

Love Simpson is also a victim of prejudice. She is more or less accepted when she is just the milliner, i.e. a person who makes or designs hats. However, her job marks her as beneath the Blakeslee family where the women don't have to work. In fact, the only acceptable job for a woman is to be a teacher unless she is a widow.

Even religion is a form of prejudice in this small town. The Blakeslee family are Baptists; the Methodists aren't considered quite as good as the Baptists, although the two denominations aren't openly hostile to one another.


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