Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Death pervades Cold Sassy Tree, a novel that begins with Mattie Lou’s death and closes with Rucker’s death. The demise of close relatives prompts Will, an adolescent already primed to ponder deep issues, to question the meaning of life and the justness of God. Will himself almost dies, a brush with mortality that intensifies his desire to understand God. He longs to know whether God interferes in the lives of individual people, as Cold Sassy religion maintains.
Rucker acts as Will’s spiritual mentor throughout the novel, never lecturing, but sharing with Will his own thoughts on death and God. He holds that God does not interfere to prevent or cause the deaths of individuals and that no amount of prayer will sway him. Rucker thinks that God instituted the general rules guiding death and that humans and animals must live by these rules. Rucker believes that although God will not change the fate of individuals, he will, as Jesus promised, give strength to all who pray for it. Burns portrays death as both a devastatingly sad event and a cause for new life. Because of death, Rucker finds happiness with Miss Love and Loma fulfills her dream of writing plays. By the end of the novel, Will has matured enough to greet death with dignity.
Modern technology floods the slow, Southern town of Cold Sassy. The novel, which takes place in 1906 and 1907, chronicles a time when people’s lives were revolutionized by a host of new conveniences, such as indoor plumbing and toilets, electric light, the automobile, and sound recordings. The novel’s first passages introduce such innovative technology as Will comments on the plumbing and telephones that are making their way into every home. The Tweedy family’s new car, which fascinates the entire town, is the most visible symbol that Cold Sassy is moving out of the nineteenth century, dominated by railroads, and into twentieth century, dominated by automobiles. Burns portrays technological advances as both positive and negative. When Rucker buys a new record player for Miss Love, the purchase brings the family closer together. In order to widen the roads on each side of the railroad lines, however, the tree from which Cold Sassy takes its name must be felled. Even the progressive townspeople cannot help but feel some nostalgia for this symbolic development, which suggests the demise of the town’s old-fashioned ways.
At the smallest whiff of impropriety, Cold Sassy’s residents announce their prejudiced disapproval. For the most part, they distrust what is different. The people of Cold Sassy object to outsiders, making Miss Love the focus of their scorn and disapproval because of her Yankee ways and unusual behavior. Cold Sassy also pays strict attention to social status and discriminates against the people of Mill Town, calling them lintheads and looking down on them as poor, uneducated, and dirty.
An integral part of Will’s maturation is his struggle to resist the close-mindedness of his hometown. When the novel begins, common sense and innocence make Will question the prejudices that older Cold Sassy residents consider the natural order of things. As the novel progresses, Will must develop the bravery to express his own objections. Will befriends Miss Love and becomes her trusted confidante, despite the fact that the rest of Cold Sassy rejects her, including Will’s parents. Will has feelings for Lightfoot, a Mill Town resident, although he stands up for her less successfully than he stands up for Miss Love. Sometimes the omnipresence of Cold Sassy’s prejudices saturates Will, and he agrees with provincial beliefs, as he does when he angrily contradicts Miss Love’s assertion that racism exists in Cold Sassy. For the most part, however, Will resists mindlessly accepting the beliefs of his elders.