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Will theorizes that if Rucker can get married, then the mourning period must be over. On the strength of this logic, he decides to go fishing. It is a warm summer day, and Will sets out with his dog, T. R., named after Teddy Roosevelt, who Will saw speak in Atlanta. Will walks by a sassafras tree that was named Cold Sassy by the pioneers who camped near it. The tree used to be just one in an entire grove, but the grove has been cut down to make room for the railroad. Some people want to change the town’s name from Cold Sassy to something more dignified and modern.
Loomis, the husband of the Tweedys’ cook, Queenie, has told Will that there are fish biting at nearby Blind Tillie Creek. To get there, Will must walk through Mill Town, a desolate settlement of poor hill people who work at the town’s cotton mill. As he walks through Mill Town, Will cannot decide whether he hopes to run into Lightfoot McLendon, a pretty girl in his class who lives in Mill Town. Cold Sassy townspeople would frown on Will’s feelings for Lightfoot, since “nobody in Mill Town ever amounted to anything.” Even though the mill is a key part of the town’s progress, Cold Sassy residents look down on its laborers and refer to them as “lintheads.” Will hopes that he does not bump into Hosie Roach, another Mill Town resident and an older boy at school who Will fights every week.
While fishing, Will has an impulse to walk across the train trestle, a high, narrow railway bridge running over Blind Tillie Creek.
T. R. senses danger and runs back down to the creek. Will makes it halfway across the trestle when he hears a train approaching. Will has time to make it to safety, but his fishing pole gets wedged in the rails and he fears that it will derail the train. By the time Will gets the pole free, the train is bearing down upon him. He falls to the ground between the rails and covers his ears. The train roars over Will, covering him with grease and grime, but he survives. His ears feel shattered, and he cannot stand.
Will looks around dazedly and sees Lightfoot running toward him. He wonders if she is one of the angels his grandmother saw before dying. Lightfoot helps him off the bridge and the train stops. Further along the track, the train stops and the passengers exit and applaud Will. The conductor realizes that another train is coming and the trains will collide if they do not move. T. R. sits on the track, paralyzed with fear, and Will refuses to leave without him. Suddenly, Loomis runs out and retrieves T. R. Loomis, Will, and Lightfoot scramble onto the train along with the other passengers, and they pull away to avoid the other train. Lightfoot has left her bucket of blackberries near the trestle, and Will makes plans with her to retrieve the blackberries the next day. Will is terrified that his parents will be furious when they hear of his near-death experience.
Will arrives at home, and Hoyt hugs him for the first time in more than two years. Loma resumes complaining about Rucker’s wedding, but Mary Willis stops her and says their father’s wedding is not important compared to Will’s survival. The whole town is thrilled by the story of Will’s miraculous escape. A crowd comes to the Tweedy house to see Will and gossip about Miss Love and Rucker, who have married that day.
Among the people who come to see Will is Cold Sassy’s Methodist preacher, who wonders if Will’s escape is a sign that Will is meant for great things. The visitors tell stories of train accidents, most of them gory. One local man who works as a reporter wants to interview Will about his harrowing experience. Suddenly, the group hears Rucker’s voice from the veranda.
Alone in the kitchen, Will tells Rucker about his adventure and is relieved when Rucker does not, as the other visitors do, tell Will to thank God for sparing him or act as if Will’s survival were a miracle. Will asks Rucker if God’s will saved him from the train. Rucker says Will lived because he had the sense to lie between the tracks and that God can take credit only for giving Will a brain with which to think. Will asks Rucker why Jesus said that if one asks for something one will receive it, even though one doesn’t usually get that for which one prays. Rucker says that maybe Jesus was asleep when he said that, maybe people misinterpreted his words, or maybe he never said it at all and the disciples fabricated the promise to entice people to join the church. Will and Rucker go back to the parlor, and Rucker asks everyone to join him in a prayer. He shocks the guests by asking God to bless Mattie Lou, but he moves them by asking God to help Miss Love know that anything good in him comes from Mattie Lou. After the prayer, Mary Willis hugs Miss Love, and all the guests follow her example except for Loma, who storms off in a jealous huff.
The prejudices of Cold Sassy extend beyond racism to include class hatred. Cold Sassy residents discriminate against their poor neighbors from Mill Town, ostracizing them and calling them lintheads because they work at the cotton mill. Physical differences distinguish the Cold Sassy residents from the Mill Town residents, who have blonde hair and lint-specked clothes. Like Loomis and Queenie, whose black skin makes them the target of racism, the lintheads’ physical differences make them easy to single out. Will becomes uncomfortable when he thinks of his classmates from Mill Town, partly because of their grimy appearance and partly because of his growing awareness of the disparities caused by social class. He feels torn in his feelings for Lightfoot. He is attracted to her common sense, intelligence, and appearance, but he has been conditioned to see her as useless and unworthy of him. Although he senses the unfairness of the stigma against Mill Town residents, Will lacks the confidence to follow his beliefs and openly befriend Lightfoot.
When Will talks to Rucker, he realizes he has an audience eager to hear his story for the story’s sake, not for the chance to drool over gossip or make pious remarks. Will’s narrow escape from death stimulates his desire to understand life and prompts his curiosity about God and human agency. In Rucker, Will finds someone willing to listen to doubts about God and religions without acting shocked. Only in front of Rucker can Will wonder aloud whether God helped him survive. Doubting that God intervenes in the affairs of men is considered blasphemous in Cold Sassy, where people believe that everything happens according to God’s will. After confronting danger and using his own wits to survive, Will feels qualified to wonder whether God saved him or whether he saved himself.
Rucker voices what seems to be the novel’s position on God. He says that although God might give people a nudge in one direction or another, people shape their own destinies and God does not interfere in every individual sickness, worry, and event in people’s lives. In Rucker’s opinion, Will’s survival fits with this theory that both divine and human agency influence life; Will survived thanks to his own intelligence, but God gave Will the brain to think with in the first place. Rucker maintains that God makes up the general rules for when people should die, but does not interfere in individual deaths. Rucker thinks that although God never wills any individual’s death, he created death to allow for growth and change—the type of growth and change that he undergoes over the course of the novel.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Cold Sassy Tree!