Rucker Blakeslee, a grandfather, patriarch, and successful storeowner, is the commanding center of Cold Sassy Tree. His imposing physical stature reflects his authority over his family and the ease with which he flouts Cold Sassy’s conventions. Not only Rucker’s morals but also his wit and prankish tendency stimulate his desire to be a thorn in Cold Sassy’s side. He takes particular joy in shaming the town’s hypocrites. He marries a much younger woman, holds church services in his own home, and puts on a lavish burial for Camp, even though Camp kills himself. Rucker is determined to defy every convention that the rest of the town observes. Cold Sassy grumbles at Rucker’s cantankerousness, but Rucker is a figure of integrity for his grandson, Will, and for us. The town is prejudiced, but Rucker is open-minded. The town clings to outdated rules, but Rucker behaves according to the dictates of his conscience. The town pays lip service to Christianity, but Rucker deciphers Jesus’ words.
Despite—and also because of—Rucker’s stubbornness and individuality, he holds a position of authority in Cold Sassy. He owns the general store, which is the hub of the town’s business and gossip. He rules, sometimes fiercely, over his obedient daughters and their husbands and children. Because Rucker is an established part of Cold Sassy life, his brashness is easier than it looks. He can safely rail against the status quo, knowing that his power, his will, and his money protect him from the anger his behavior inspires. His rebellion commands admiration, but it also sometimes makes scapegoats of Will, Miss Love, and Loomis, who do not have the same power that protects Rucker and makes him invulnerable to criticism.
Rucker becomes more cheerful and easygoing as the novel progresses. During his marriage to Mattie Lou, various difficulties affect his temperament. Although Rucker and Mattie Lou are kind and considerate to each other, the traumas of their marriage make Rucker controlling and stingy. He provides well for his family, but he vents his sadness through miserliness. Under the influence of Miss Love Simpson, however, Rucker begins to exhibit a new generosity and gentleness.
Many critics have likened Will Tweedy to the boy hero Huckleberry Finn from Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Like Huck, whose travels in the South help him learn about life, Will’s experiences help him understand such complex issues as death, prejudice, and love. Will narrates the novel, and although he is twenty-two when he narrates the events of the story years later, he recaptures the adolescent humor and innocent perspective that allow him to view his grandfather’s marriage and the ways of the South with unbiased eyes. This youthful voice keeps the narrative lively, while his adolescent humor lightens the novel’s serious examinations of death and morality.
In many ways, Will Tweedy and Rucker Blakeslee are the same man at opposite ends of life’s spectrum. Critics frequently describe Will as the mirror image of Rucker in outward appearance and personality. Will and Rucker share a penchant for practical jokes, storytelling, and fighting. Their characters also progress along the same arc—though in different directions—over the course of the story. The novel tells the story of Will’s maturation and Rucker’s renaissance. Will must learn from his grandfather how to speak his mind and discard the social constraints of Cold Sassy. As Will learns to become defiant and brave, Rucker, whose defiance hardened him, learns to become happy and youthful. Both Will and Rucker move toward the middle point on the spectrum.
Miss Love is a spirited young woman capable of speaking her mind, which makes her the perfect companion for the outspoken Rucker. The passages in which she appears bustle with fresh air, sunshine, color, and sexuality, reflecting her vigor. Miss Love also has a vulnerable side, and although she meets Cold Sassy’s disapproval with cheery strength, she spends much of her early married life shedding private tears. Miss Love agrees with Rucker’s policy of greeting all hardship with boisterous tolerance, but their attitude of cheerful resignation has its flaws. It isn’t until Miss Love begins to express her dismay at Cold Sassy’s unfriendliness that she becomes happy.
As Rucker and Miss Love’s relationship develops and they begin to fall in love with each other, Miss Love reveals the abuse that darkens her past and makes her feel polluted and unworthy of love. Although it pains her to reveal her history, by doing so she deepens her connection to Rucker, ceases to worry that she is hiding a scandalous secret, and eventually becomes truly happy. Her bravery demonstrates that honesty can improve even the worst circumstances. Burns portrays the trauma of Miss Love’s childhood as she portrays death—dark, but not hopeless. Miss Love helps Rucker by showing him her ability to convert pain into happiness.