The Beach Trees: Understanding Why People Rebuild

BlogHer Review

I spent the first eighteen years of my life in the earthquake country of coastal California.  I then left and spent a decade in the four seasons of the east coast. Finally, this two-season girl convinced her Boston-bred husband to move out west. When he fretted about earthquakes, I dismissed his worry, assuring him I’d never felt anything more than a mild rattle and roll. Two months after we arrived in Oakland, the Loma Prieta quake shattered my smug confidence. 

It never dawned on me to retreat to the relative safety of New England. But as I have watched one natural disaster after another batter these United States, I have wondered why those who live in hurricane country or Tornado Alley don’t just throw in the towel and retreat to safer ground. Unlike earthquakes that are rare and unpredictable, hurricanes and tornadoes have yearly seasons. The damage that is done is sure to be done again and sooner rather than later. Reading Karen White’s latest novel, The Beach Trees, I think I have a better sense of what makes us stay.

Using as a construct the destruction and aftermath of the two major hurricanes that have hit the Louisiana coast line in the last fifty years, White weaves a plot line of multiple generations whose lives have been upended by murder, lust, and loss. It might well have worked, but like any major storm, she just didn’t know when to quit.

The backstory, the life and loves of Aimee, is well wrought and compelling. The front story, the one we are supposed to care about, follows Julie who has been granted guardianship of Beau, the now dead Monica’s young son. Years before, Monica had abruptly abandoned her New Orleans family and moved to New York where she met Julie. We are led to believe that Monica’s deep trust in Julie is the reason she leaves her orphaned son in her friend’s hands. Ah, but there is more to it than that. You must read the novel to find the answer. 

As for Julie, she is suffering from abandonment issues of her own. Her sister disappeared one morning when the two were playing in the family garden. In the twenty years following, no trace of her has ever been found. Julie, of course, blames herself. Feeling swamped yet? Oh, we are just getting started.

Monica’s mother is dead So is Julie’s. Monica’s grandmother, Aimee, has raised her because Monica’s father lost himself to sorrow and alcohol. Julie’s father is lost too as a result of his own sorrow from the disappearance of his daughter and the loss of his wife. Lot’s of loss going on here. 

But wait, there is murder too! Monica’s grandmother, Aimee, has also lost her mother who was murdered one night while a very young Aimee lie sleeping in bed with her. Aimee, of course, suffers from a fear of the dark. You would too if your mother was stabbed multiple times while you were lying in bed next to her.

Then, of course, there is the mysterious and menacing Xavier whose scarred face with its one good eye is always watching. We can ignore the racist undertones of creating a scarred brother who, in fact, is a brother because of the affair of the patriarch had with the maid -- but perhaps that may be one deconstruction too many. 

And then there is Monica’s brother Trey, uncle to the now motherless Beau and enemy to the well-intentioned Julie, who just happens to quit her highly desirable curating job in NYC to move to Louisiana. Julie doesn’t know that the hurricane-ravaged house she thought was gifted to her from Monica is, in fact, co-owned by Trey.  The moment he is introduced, you know how this story will end. You could just put the book in the recycling bin now, but you may want to read on to hear Aimee’s story.

Aimee as a character is as feisty as you might expect from redhead (do the cliche’s ever end?). She is in love with two brothers and the tangled and twisted tale of their triangle is at the heart of this novel. That story alone might be worth reading this book and so I won’t tell it here.

White may have fourteen books to her name and I have not read a one of them until now, but I can only assume she is a better writer than the words she has cobbled together here. The language is overwrought and at times even laughable. When Julie sees the destruction from Katrina along the Louisiana coastline, we read: “All of that water. All of that destruction. I felt heavy with the thought of it, felt the weight of the water pushing me under.” Cue the music; swell. 

I can’t pass up sharing this paragraph. It wins the melodrama award:

My scream echoed off the water, through the darkness under the pier and all around me. The tray slid from my hands, the china breaking in a thousand pieces, kettle bouncing on the pier and spraying my legs with scalding splashes of water (lot’s of water symbolism if you missed that). I stepped on the broken china as I ran to him, the sharp edges tearing at the tender skin of my feet. But I felt nothing -- nothing except the cold, inky darkness that had suddenly thrown its black cloak around me, consuming me completely.”

Lest I leave you thinking this novel is as chaotic as a hurricane, there is the one thing White has done well. The eye of her storm is her ability to help the reader gain insight into the familial connections that keep us tied to the landscape in which we live. I googled "carved beach trees+katrina" and found images and stories of redemption that moved me far more deeply than this novel. I may not have known about them if it wasn’t for Karen White and for that I am grateful. The novel goes in the trash, but the memories of The Beach Trees will live on.