by Olive Ann Burns
First sentence: “Three weeks after Granny Blakeslee died, Grandpa came to our house for his early morning snort of whiskey, as usual, and said to me, ‘Will Tweedy? Go find yore mama, then run up to yore Aunt Loma’s and tell her I said git on down here. I got something to say. And I ain’t a-go’n to say it but once’t.'”
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It’s 1906, in Cold Sassy, Georgia. Everyone knows their place in society, and how to behave. But, the summer Will Tweedy’s grandmother dies, his Grandpa decides to shake everything — including everyone’s expectations — upside down by marrying, a mere three weeks after the death, a woman half his age.
It sounds a bit creepy (everyone I described the plot to said, “Ew” as their first reaction), it’s really not; it’s more a story of second chances. From the Grandpa getting a second chance at a kind of youth; to his wife, Miss Love, getting a second chance at happiness (she has a very sad life story); to Will’s aunt getting a second chance at chasing her dreams. It helps that the story is told from 14-year-old Will’s point of view, which adds to the innocence. Will’s just discovering love and learning to live his life, and he has this wide-eyed naivete towards his grandfather and his beautiful bride.
In addition, it’s nice reading about someone (granted, that someone is white, and fairly well off; black people barely make a presence in the book, except as the cooks and hired help they were during Jim Crow in the South) shake up the entrenched Southern Expectations of the small town from his married daughters on down. It’s not an easy journey: it’s lonely and harsh being different from the norm, as any visionary knows, and Burns doesn’t spare us any of either the spite or the heartache.
Perhaps that’s what makes this simple novel work: the fact that everyone’s emotions and the consequences of their actions are laid open for us to discover. From the treatment of Will’s uneducated Uncle Camp to the desires of Will himself towards a mill girl, someone a “respectable” town boy should never deign to associate himself with. It’s a picture of a time, and not a glossed-over, prettified one, either. There’s racism, classism, xenophobia towards the Yankees. On the other hand, there’s an incredible sense of family, community, loyalty and responsibility. In other words: for good or ill, it’s the South.
Unfortunately, the book peters out in the end, giving Grandpa (and the town) a kind of pathetic, easy way out. I so wanted for them all to work things out, to get along, and for Grandpa and Miss Love to be happy, but it was not to be so. Which, perhaps, it the way it should be. There are no happily-ever-afters in real life, after all.
Very, very good.