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Monday, January 19, 2015

Found . . . and Lost



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.

17 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sad. But at least you did find her. I'm sure the sequel won't be quite the same, but maybe enough of her is there in the story.

Joanne said...

Indeed, she lives on in her words and you can only hope folks keep finding her. I do remember reading that book quite a while ago. Good stuff.

mshatch said...

I've hear of that book but never read it. What a shame she didn't write anything else.

Bish Denham said...

This is long been on my reading list. You've pushed me to find a copy!

Delores said...

What a shame.

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

How lucky for you that you found a book that touched you so much.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Her work lives on ... on high school reading lists. My daughter was required to read Cold Sassy Tree.

Karen Walker said...

Holy cow! You are right. I've never heard of her - what a talent.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Think of all the things that woman lived through, civil rights, women fighting for equality and she witnessed the growth of technology and the change from using outhouses to modern plumbing.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

I read that book when it first came out, but don't remember much about it any more, other than that I enjoyed it. Think of it this way: even though she's gone, people are still reading and loving her work. That's gotta count for something.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

This is the problem i find with books and authors. Among the millions out there, it's probably such a small percentage of the ones that impact me like what you describe. And finding that one is pure gold. I remember the first time I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I was probably 13 or 14, and remember feeling just like that when I finished. Regarding Cold Sassy Tree, let's hope this was the only book in her because how sad if she had a dozen more she could've written and didn't.

Kittie Howard said...

Your post brought back poignant memories. I paid 25 cents for Cold Sassy Tree at one of those library sales. What started out as something to read on an airplane turned into One Of The Best Books Ever Read. I ADORE, LOVe CST and read it several times before passing it to a friend. CST captures a magical something without equal. Although not quite as good as CST, the sequel is also a really good read and worth chasing down. The reason it's not quite as good has more to do with characters growing up and times changing than with the author's writing as she remained true to form.

Like you, I googled the author and felt a pang she'd passed.

Jan Morrison said...

What a lovely story - yes, including the bittersweet feeling of found and lost. Perhaps it is all the contemplation I'm doing - but this is it. She was gone when you found her but you found her! I also like reading that someone wrote one fine book - like Harper Lee or even Margaret Mitchell. Maybe I only have one book in me but wouldn't it be swell to have written a book that people go crazy over? I think so...

JJ said...

What a wonderful tribute to a terrific talent.

Stephanie Faris said...

I felt that way when one of my favorite authors died last year. I mourned the work we'll never be able to read...but at least they left a legacy and made an impression on many minds. That's really all any of us can ask during our relatively short stay here.

Empty Nest Insider said...

This was such a beautifully written review, Liza. It's sad that Olive Ann Burns died before completing the sequel, but as you noted, she left behind a wonderful legacy.

Julie

Daisy said...

Wonderful passage that you shared. It is sad that she has passed on, but a joy that you found and enjoyed some of her work she left behind.