First novel; Cold Sassy Tree, by Olive Ann Burns. New York: Ticknor & Fields. 391 pp. $16.95.
ByRuth Doan MacDougallRuth Doan MacDougal reviews first novels for the Monitor. Here are two captivating first novels, both recounted by narrators whose voices are as memorable as their tales. Cold Sassy Tree is told from the viewpoint of Will Tweedy, a 14-year-old boy who doesn't miss a thing that's going on in the Georgia town of Cold Sassy (named for a sassafras grove). And in Cold Sassy in 1906, what everyone is gossiping about is the scandalous behavior of Will's grandfather, one of the town's leading merchants (''Had him a big brick store with mahogany counters, beveled glass mirrors, and big colored signs for Coca-Cola''). Three weeks after Granny dies, Grandpa marries Miss Love Simpson, a milliner and a Yankee from Maryland, throwing the town into a tizzy. While Will is observing this unusual romance, he suddenly realizes he is attracted to his grandfather's new young wife. Horrified, he concentrates instead on a pet project: ''There isn't anything like planning a camping trip to get your mind off of what it shouldn't be on.'' This adolescent balancing act between boyhood and manhood results in practical jokes and tentative philosophizing, hilarious misconceptions and touching insights. And there are more delights, including a silver saddle, a wedding supper of fried catfish and banana fritters, and a country woman who buys a newfangled, fashionable dust veil to wear in her wagon, telling her husband, ''The same dust as gits on them fancy ladies in artermobiles gits on me when they go racin' by. I got jest as much right to look nice in a cloud a-dust as they do.'' This is a joyous book. The narrator of The Tie That Binds is 50-year-old Sanders Roscoe, who invites the reader ''to sit down quiet in that chair across the table from me'' and listen to his tale about Edith Goodnough, a woman with such an ''iron sense of duty'' that she refused to marry the man she loved in order to take care of her crippled, tyrannical father and weak-willed brother. Her suitor was John Roscoe, Sanders's father, and although John lived only a half mile down the road, she could not move even that far from her obligations. The setting is northeastern Colorado; the time span is from 1896, when Edith's parents arrived as homesteaders, to the week of Edith's 80th birthday in 1977. With Edith as the center, a way of life is vividly described: the never-ending farm chores (which include a terrible accident you'll want to read with your eyes shut), Main Street on a Saturday afternoon, the porch swing, a fair, births, deaths - and always the land. Edith's bleak existence may consist mostly of ''a lifetime of staying home''; it is nonetheless eventful. Kent Haruf writes so wonderfully that even if it seems he has created a woman too level-headed not to have figured out a way to move that half mile down the road, this flaw doesn't matter. His characters live, and the voice of his narrator reverberates after the last page: humorous, ironic, loving.
The Tie That Binds, by Kent Haruf. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 246 pp. $13.95.