Cold Sassy Tree
The title of the book is also the main metaphor for life in this small Georgia town at the turn of the century. The town of Cold Sassy is on a ridge where settlers camped under a grove of sassafras trees. The place began to be referred to as “thet cold sassyfras grove” (Chpt. 9, p. 51). The word “cold” meant the temperature, because the wagoners thought it was the coldest spot between the mountains and Augusta. In Will’s time, the grove had been reduced to two trees, but as a boy, he remembered one had been cut down to make room for the railroad depot. As the story opens, only one tree is left. It is a hundred feet tall. Its leaves are so scarlet in the fall that people travel to see it. It now shades the depot and watches over the comings and goings in town.
The cold sassafras tree is a symbol of the town. The people can be cold and unfriendly to strangers and to one another with their gossip and little vengeful acts. They are also “sassy” and independent, refusing to join the Union forty years after the end of the Civil War, still living in their Confederate dream of the South. They are proud and like to tell stories of their ancestors and families. Characters such as Grandpa Blakeslee, Loma, Miss Effie Belle Tate, and Will Tweedy “sass” others in their stubbornness and self-righteousness.
The tree stands in the center of town, a metaphor for their old memories. All during the story, the townsfolk want to rename the town, just as the town of Harmony Grove became Commerce to make it sound modern and prosperous. Grandpa tells Love they will change the name over his dead body. That is what happens, for after Grandpa dies, the town is renamed Progressive City. The sassafras tree is cut down to widen the road, but Will saves a piece of the root to put in his box of childhood memorabilia with the buckeye Lightfoot gave him. That root is thus symbolic of his memory and the basis of his writing about the town.
The Railroad and Automobile
If the sassafras grove is the past, the railroad and automobile are the future. The railroad makes possible the movement of the cotton from the mill. It connects Cold Sassy to the rest of the world. Hoyt’s Cadillac, Grandpa’s Pierce, and the goods from the buying trip to New York all come in by train and cause great excitement. Several times the whole town is waiting with bands to greet the train and its cargo.
The train and cotton mill make the town an up and coming place with a future, assuring it will not be like the many poor and backward country towns around Cold Sassy, like Cushie Springs that has no telephone, industry, or auto mechanics. The Jamison son in Cushie Springs has to go to Athens to find work. The buying of the first car in Cold Sassy, Hoyt’s Cadillac, is an ominous sign, for it is the beginning of a new era, but the end of the Cold Sassy of Granny and Grandpa. Grandpa at first embraces cars, then gives up on them, distrusting machines. Even the modern Love eschews cars for horses.
The two-edged sword of machinery is clearly spelled out with Will’s train accident. The train trestle is compared to a siren calling him; he sees the trestle as a “bridge across the world” (Chpt. 11, p. 74). When the train runs over Will and he lives to tell about it, the train becomes a symbol of death in his dreams, and the accident sets off his questions about death. There is a regular slaughter of animals, and a cutting of trees associated with the railroad.
The Family Bible
The Toy family Bible, from Granny’s family line, is sitting in Grandpa’s house. It records the marriage of Granny and Grandpa and their numerous offspring, most of whom had died. The Bible symbolizes the tight-knit family structure, the past, the history or lineage, written in the Bible to connect it to a sacred tradition. When Love Simpson marries Grandpa, she dares to write their marriage into the Toy Bible. Will sees the entry and worries, because he knows his mother will think it an affront, a sacrilege. When his mother finds the inscription, she wears the page thin, trying to erase the entry. Will comments on the symbolic nature of this: “Miss Love had written herself into the family” (Chpt. 34, p. 235). This is exactly what Love is trying to do in every way, since she is without her own family and roots. More than wanting Grandpa’s money, she wants the security of home and family. She fights her way into the town that is distrustful of outsiders, only winning, it is implied, by becoming pregnant. Love tells Will “They’ll make room for him [the baby] in the family and bring him into the life of the town” (Chpt. 50, p. 390). It is Grandpa’s baby, and the baby belongs in the lineage in the Bible. The marriage cannot be erased.
Connected with the Bible metaphor for the family, is the idea of life as a book. Will thinks of the story of Love and his Grandpa like “a book with the last chapter missing” (Chpt. 45, p. 340). Similarly, Loma, amused by the stories Will has made up about her, thinks he should write down these stories and gives him a journal. He records Grandpa’s story and tells it as a drama that he has witnessed.
Cold Sassy Tree