Well, good gosh a’mighty! She’s dead as she’ll ever be, ain’t she? Well, ain’t she?
In the year 1914, the novel’s narrator, Will Tweedy, recalls the summer of 1906 in Cold Sassy, when he was fourteen years old. His story begins on July 5, 1906, right after Cold Sassy’s first Fourth of July celebration since the Civil War, a conflict known in Cold Sassy as the War Between the States. Rucker Blakeslee, Will’s grandfather, stops by Will’s house and takes a shot of corn whiskey, as he does every day. Rucker’s wife, Mattie Lou, always refused to let Rucker keep corn whiskey in the house, and even though Mattie Lou died three weeks earlier, Rucker still keeps his whiskey at Will’s house. Rucker asks Will to find his mother, Mary Willis, and Will’s aunt, Loma. Will runs to Aunt Loma’s to tell her of her father’s arrival; she doesn’t have a phone. Many people in Cold Sassy, including Will’s family, have phones, indoor plumbing, and electricity, but Loma and her husband, Camp, cannot afford such luxuries. Rucker does not have them either, but in his case the problem is stinginess. Once Will, Loma, and Mary Willis have gathered, Rucker announces that he and Mattie Lou had a fine thirty-six years together but that he now plans to marry Miss Love Simpson, the pretty young hat-maker who works at his store. When Loma reminds Rucker that Mattie Lou has been dead only three weeks, he replies, “She’s dead as she’ll ever be, ain’t she?”
Rucker leaves for the store, and Loma and Mary Willis vent their shock and outrage. Not only is Miss Love young enough to be Rucker’s daughter, but she comes from Baltimore, which nearly makes her a Yankee. Loma and Mary worry about what people in the town will say. They think a quick marriage will dishonor their mother’s memory. They know they cannot dissuade their father from the marriage, since once Rucker Blakeslee makes up his mind he does what he wants to do.
Loma leaves with her baby, Campbell Junior, and Mary Willis goes upstairs to rest. Will does not mind his grandfather’s impending marriage. Shortly after the Civil War, Rucker lost a hand in a sawmill accident, and Will reasons that Rucker needs someone to look after him now that Mattie Lou is dead. Will begins thinking about how much he hates being in mourning, because it means he can’t go fishing, play with his friends, or read the funny papers. Will notes the distinction between being in mourning and actually mourning, and says he does not think his grandmother would want him to stop enjoying life. Will’s father, Hoyt, who works at Rucker’s store, comes running home with the news that Rucker and Miss Love have just set off to get married. This news comes as a shock, since the family had assumed that Rucker would wait to marry until the end of the yearlong mourning period. Mary Willis weeps and says she thinks that Miss Love will go after the store and the inheritance.
Will thinks about the irascible old Rucker, a Confederate and a man who still gets into fistfights. Rucker considers Will the son he never had. Will remembers seeing the pretty Miss Love for the first time, shortly after Rucker hired her. Miss Love is fashionable and wears bright colors, nothing like the town’s other women, who wear muted tones. She is a suffragette, or advocate for women’s right to vote, which makes her unusual in Cold Sassy. She makes fashionable hats and helps the women with their hair. Will thinks Loma is jealous of Miss Love because Loma was the prettiest woman in town until Miss Love moved in. Now Loma is stuck with a husband whom she married just to spite Rucker, who angered her by refusing to let her join an acting troupe. Will thinks about how much he dislikes his bossy aunt.
Cold Sassy Tree tells two stories: the story of Will Tweedy and his coming of age, and the story of Rucker and his new love. Will and Rucker share many qualities; in many ways, they are the same figure, shown at opposite ends of life. Townspeople frequently remark on Will’s and his grandfather’s similar appearance and personality. Will and Rucker both love practical jokes, storytelling, and fighting. Rucker provides the model for what Will might become in his old age. Rucker’s integrity informs his actions, including his marriage to Miss Love Simpson. Throughout Cold Sassy Tree, Will struggles with the moral consequences of his actions and begins to acquire the convictions that shape Rucker.
Both Will and Rucker question the conformity demanded by the residents of Cold Sassy, although Will simply puzzles over the rules that strike him as illogical while Rucker has grown used to making stubborn, principled objections to those rules. Will resists the trappings of mourning and questions the logic of refraining from pleasure in order to pay tribute to the dead. He begins to understand that one does not need to be in mourning in order to mourn for someone. Rucker, who likely thought just as Will did when he was a boy, does not simply muse about illogical rules, he takes action. For instance, he insists on marrying Love Simpson and ignores the gossip-conscious objections of his daughters. Furthermore, rather than wait and mourn for an amount of time that society arbitrarily considers appropriate, he proceeds with his marriage precisely when he wants to.
Burns shows the damaging close-mindedness of Southern community life. Mary Willis and Loma object to the union of Rucker and Miss Love Simpson partly because they think it shows disrespect toward their dead mother, partly because it makes them worry about their own financial security, but mostly because they fear what the rest of the town will think. They know that people will suggest that Miss Love has her eye on Rucker’s money and that Rucker was waiting for Mattie Lou to die so he could marry Miss Love. The people of Cold Sassy welcome tales of impropriety, which allow them to indulge their distrust of everything new and everybody different. Those who have lived in Cold Sassy all their lives feel that they are superior to the poor, blacks, Northerners, and all other outsiders. The townspeople’s sour suspicion clashes with Will’s innocence, and he is puzzled by the great clamor over his grandfather’s new marriage. He does not see why Rucker cannot love both Mattie Lou and Miss Love, or why it is so wrong for Rucker to marry a lovely woman who will help him.