I Was Riveted By The Beach Trees
Some of my favorite stories are the ones where the very location is integral to the story itself -- in essence it becomes another character. The big literary talk around my area right now is The Help. It was written several years ago and the movie version is being released in a couple of weeks. So much of the appeal for my friends is in knowing the area, (and in some cases the people), where the story takes place. Each street and store evokes ideas and memories that are as different as the individual readers. This is exactly what Karen White has done in her newest novel, The Beach Trees .
Whereas The Help takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s, The Beach Trees is set in the present day, in New Orleans and Biloxi (Mississippi) post-Hurricane Katrina. I don’t know what kind of images are evoked from people who aren’t from around here, but as a Mississippi girl with ties to New Orleans, the images are stark. My thoughts go way beyond a week’s worth of round-the-clock coverage of the Superdome and people awaiting rescue on their roof. There was complete and utter devastation in so many places. And many, many individual stories of survival and rebuilding. I was curious to see how well White would portray this dichotomy. And let me just say, she did it very well, with this well-written, intriguing story.
The Beach Trees tells the story of Julie, a late 20-something New Yorker who has inherited a Katrina-demolished property on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a painting of a woman that was painted by Julie's great-grandfather years earlier, and guardianship of five-year-old Beau after her friend Monica dies. Julie decides to drop everything to head down to Mississippi to try to discover and decide what is the best thing to do with Beau, who happens to have extended family in New Orleans. The main problem is that Monica cut all ties with her family ten years earlier and always refused to discuss the reasons with Julie. So, Julie has to find Monica’s family and determine if it is in Beau’s best interest to have any contact with them, particularly since they don’t even know of his existence.
The story goes back and forth between Julie, in the present, and Aimee, who is Monica’s grandmother. The bulk of Aimee’s story takes place in the 1950s and 1960s, and slowly provides the backstory that reveals clues and information that ties into why Monica would choose to up and leave her beloved family members years later. The themes of resilience, and survival, and regret, and guilt play in as well.
Is riveted too corny of a literary description? Well, that is what I was -- riveted -- by this story. White did a masterful job of telling the stories of many different characters, in a manner that kept me guessing and wondering until the very end. Her choice to use the coast as the backdrop of her story was just icing on the cake. After finishing the book, I learned that White has not personally seen the beach trees she so perfectly describes. It just makes her descriptions all the more impressive.
I loved this book, and plan on sharing it with my friends. There is just something about a story that captures the stubborn Southern mindset and places that in our own backyard that we just love. The Beach Trees is definitely a keeper.
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