Olive Ann Burns’ 1984 novel Cold Sassy Tree, about a Georgia town at the beginning of the twentieth century, remains in print decades after its publication and continues to reach millions of readers with a timeless story that transcends regional boundaries.
Burns’ tale of a North Georgia community modeled on her family home of Commerce was an immediate success, a Book-of-the-Month Club bestseller. On the strength of its popularity and recommendations from the American Library Association and other literary opinion-makers the book has found its way into hundreds of high-school classes, book clubs, and onto many other recommended lists.
Chosen in 2002 as one of the “Books All Georgians Should Read” by the Georgia Center for the Book, Cold Sassy Tree was nominated for an American Book Award when it came out, and Burns was honored as Georgia Author of the Year by the Dixie Council of Authors and Journalists.
Wrote the Washington Post’s reviewer, “Cold Sassy Tree is not a dear sweet southern story, although it is certainly rich with emotion, humor and tenderness. It is not fueled by mere blatherings of southern spinsters on antebellum porches. It is a novel about an old man growing young, a young man growing up, and the modern age coming to a small southern town, bringing with it violence and sadness, often in the name of progress.”
Born in Banks County, Olive Ann Burns grew up going to school in nearby Commerce and Dalton and she attended high school and college in Macon. After earning a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina, she moved to Atlanta and became a staff writer for the Sunday magazine of The Atlanta Journal . A writer of feature stories and a one-time advice columnist, she wrote for the magazine for thirty-seven years. She wrote Cold Sassy Tree when she was in her fifties, a project that she undertook shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. To write the novel, Burns drew upon her own family history research, specifically her father's stories of small-town life as he recalled it in North Georgia.
According to Burns, Cold Sassy Tree also was partly inspired by a history of Commerce that she had read (History of Harmony Grove-Commerce, Jackson County, Georgia, 1810-1949, by Thomas C. Hardman). She referred particularly to its chapters on town characters and on favorite trees, where she encountered the sassafras tree from which she took the town’s name.
“What hooked me on family history was not names and dates. It was the handed-down stories that bring the dead back to life,” Burns later wrote.
Burns died in 1990, but her novel’s phenomenal, ongoing appeal led to a posthumously published sequel featuring an incomplete manuscript by Burns, Leaving Cold Sassy (1992). Cold Sassy Tree has also inspired a made-for-television movie, as well as an acclaimed comic opera by the American composer Carlisle Floyd.
Photo of Olive Ann Burns by John Sparks.
The following titles by Olive Ann Burns are held by the Hargrett Library:
Cold Sassy Tree. New York : Ticknor & Fields, 1984.
Cold Sassy Tree. New York : Dell, 1986.
Leaving Cold Sassy : The Unfinished Sequel to Cold Sassy Tree. New York : Ticknor & Fields, 1992.
The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Georgia holds correspondence, manuscripts, clippings, and other material relating to Olive Ann Burns's novel, Cold Sassy Tree and her career as writer for The Atlanta Constitution and Atlanta Weekly.