A couple of years ago, I wrote about the calendars my husband has taken to giving me for Christmas each year. Every month displays a scenic view of, or from, a front porch, with a literary snippet posted underneath the photo. Each time I turn a page I find stunning images, language to inspire me, and fodder for my reading list.
One of the excerpts from 2013 was a book called Cold Sassy Tree, by Olive Anne Burns, which I couldn’t find in the library, or any book store. It never occurred to me to download it, so it sat on my list, waiting. Then, in December, while picking through the cardboard boxes at the used book fair held during our annual Festival on the Common, I found a copy and snatched it up. Oh, gosh. This author scooped me right up and plunked me inside the head of a fourteen-year-old boy from a hundred years ago, and kept me there for over four-hundred pages. Me, middle-aged Liza from 2015, seeing the story through Will Tweedy's eyes, and even more so, his heart.
A few days ago, after I turned the last page, I sat for a while, experiencing that quiet grief that descends when a wonderful book is over, wanting more. What else had Olive Ann Burns written? I need to know more about this woman, whose words yanked me to the middle of a dusty southern town in the early nineteen-hundreds, a place where folks still used privy’s, lit kerosene lamps, where a glimpse of an automobile was an event to chew on over supper.
I Googled and discovered Olive Ann Burns was born in 1924. Before writing the novel, she’d been a journalist, and it took her eight years to write Cold Sassy Tree, her first book, published in 1984. She died in 1990, before finishing the sequel. It was published posthumously.
After reading that, I grieved for real. The world has been without her for 25 years, and I’ve just discovered her. That talent is gone. Oh, I suppose I'll find the sequel. But the loss sank way down inside me, far beyond the desire for something to read. Like I'd missed something so very big. Days later, I still feel the hurt.
So, in honor of Olive Ann Burns, here’s a snippet. And let me tell you this. When I decided to include some of her writing in this post, I turned the pages of the book again. The scene below is only as good as all the others. Every single paragraph in the novel demonstrates the skill this lost writer had for her craft.
She’s gone. But she’s left such a legacy.
The engin’s roar pierced my eardrums anyway, making awful pain. I was so scared I could hardly breathe, and there was a strong smell of heated creosote. Hot cinders spit on me from the firebox. Yet even as the boxcars clacked, knocked, strained, ground, and groaned overhead, it came to me that I wasn’t dead. If there wasn’t a dragging brake beam to rip me down the back, I was g’on make it.
Boy howdy, I did some fancy praying. All it amounted to was “God save me!” Please God save me!’ And then it was “Thank you, Lord, thank you, God, thank you, sir . . .” I guess what made them fancy was the strange peaceful feeling I got, as if the lord had said, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” or something like that. I wasn’t dead! Boy howdy, boy howdy, boy howdy! I was buried alive in noise, and the heat and the cinders stung my neck and legs and bottoms of my feet. Still and all, that’s what kept reminding me I wasn’t dead. Cold Sassy Tree, by Olive Ann Burns.