Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Humor as a Coping Mechanism

Will often uses humor to deal with the grief and tragedy in his life, telling funny stories to convey or dispel feelings that he does not yet understand. For example, on the way home from the camping trip, Will reacts to the stress of hearing his friends speak disrespectfully about Miss Love by telling a series of tall tales about Loma. To cope with his growing preoccupation with death and the meaning of life, Will tells his friends an anecdote about his great-grandmother’s fantastical near-burial. Humor works temporarily, but eventually Will finds that he needs a more lasting way of dealing with his pain. The bond that Will’s stories create between him and Loma feels so artificial that he is relieved when they become enemies again. Burns portrays humor as a useful temporary measure but an inadequate substitute for expressing emotion.

Family as a Burden and a Blessing

In Cold Sassy Tree, families are both a burden and an invaluable support system. Family relationships often consist of power games in which family members try to force one another to behave in certain ways. Rucker’s daughters have the power to make his new wife miserable, but Rucker uses his position as head of the family to enforce his decisions. As bitter as these power struggles can be, familial obligations also mean that characters never find themselves alone in times of need. When Camp commits suicide, Rucker stoutly honors his memory, even though Rucker treated Camp badly and resented the fact that his familial bond to Camp forced Rucker to give the lazy boy special treatment. Burns concludes that like all of life’s other obstacles, families are a source of grief and anxiety, but that they can also provide succor and foster growth.

Language as a Reflection of Class and Place

The language in Cold Sassy Tree reflects the regional speech of the period and often reflects a character’s class and upbringing. The people of Cold Sassy speak in standard Southern vernacular, and the people of Mill Town speak with a slightly different inflection that reveals their lower social status. Miss Love speaks proper English because one of her relatives wanted her to sound elegant. Toward the end of the novel, Miss Love inadvertently says “ain't,” a word common in Southern diction and foreign to her proper ways. This utterance signals her gradual acclimation to Cold Sassy’s Southern values and traditions.