The Beach Trees: A Love Letter to the South

BlogHer Review
"Because the water recedes, and the sun comes out, and the trees grown back. Because" -- she spread her hands, indicating the garden and the tree and, I imagined, the entire peninsula of Biloxi --"because we've learned that great tragedy gives us opportunities for great kindness. It's like a needed reminder that the human spirit is alive and well despite all evidence to the contrary." She lowered her hands to her sides. "I figured I wasn't dead, so I must not be done." - The Beach Trees by Karen White

Julie Holt knows tragedy. She has been searching, searching for most of her life, for the younger sister who was stolen away on Julie's watch, the sister who has been missing for 17 years. That loss cause Julie to put her own life on hold, she has no family bonds, no roots, no place to call home. So when she meets a young struggling artist named Monica, who strongly reminds her of her lost sister, she can't help but adopt the girl. What follows is a strong, sisterly relationship that culminates in Julie assuming guardianship of Monica's son Beau and a life-changing trip to the Gulf Coast, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, and to a family as deeply scarred as Julie herself.

The Beach Trees is a story of rebirth and rebuilding and no where is that better personified that New Orleans, Louisiana and Biloxi, Mississippi. In New Orleans, Julie meets the Guidry family, the family Monica had fled over 10 years ago. She finds a family grieving the loss of a sister and granddaughter -- a family just as unmoored and adrift has she is. As she finds herself slowly taken in my Monica's family, she (and they) begin to piece together the mysteries of their pasts, Julie and the disappearance of her sister, and the Guidry's and while Monica ran away.

The characters of Karen White are lovely, conflicted, delicious characters and the cities of New Orleans and Biloxi are as much a character as the rest. I've lived in the South all my life, so I love to read stories set in the South, especially when Southern people are accurately portrayed. We are a tenacious, resilient people and Karen White got it exactly right. I loved the juxtaposition of Julie, a woman lost and scared, afraid to put down roots, afraid to become attached to anything, finding herself in the dead center of two towns that have been to Hell and back and they just keep going. They just keep going, doing whatever it takes to survive, to keep their roots down, their lives together, and their very selves going. They have a few things to teach Julie Holt, if she will only stop running long enough to listen.

And the descriptions of New Orleans and Biloxi? Will leave you wanting to go there. Here is a favorite quote:

Gary and I were inseparable after that -- spending all our afternoons together in the long New Orleans summer until I had to go back to school in Philadelphia. Most days we rode our bicycles down St. Charles Avenue -- slowly, so Gary wouldn't get to worn out -- and through Audubon Park, crossing Magazine and the railroad tracks to the levee to see what we could find floating in the river. On days when the rain tore at the life oak trees on St. Charles, we climbed to the topmost corner of Grandmother's house to spook each other with ghost stories. We sat in the dark with a platter of pralines and Coca-Colas, brought up the steep, narrow stairs by Aunt Roseanne. -- Page 65.

White is a master of atmosphere. There are many more lovely touches of ambiance through her story that serve to take you away down South. From Mardi Gras beads to the Cafe du Monde, you can help but feel that sweet, humid air and smell the beignets on the breeze. Take The Beach Trees with you to the beach or pool and loose yourself in family mystery and a languid Southern afternoon.

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