The Beach Trees: A Lesson in Post-Katrina Gulf Coast Culture

BlogHer Review

Culture shock doesn't always require a passport, proven in Karen White's latest book, The Beach Trees. There's no other way to describe Julie Holt's initial reaction to everything she experiences on her first trip to the Gulf Coast, visiting the hurricane-ravaged landscape and heartbroken family her best friend, Monica left behind but described in detail, both with words and paintings, until her untimely death.

Julie, a lifelong New Englander living in New York, attempts to put tragedy -- her sister's childhood disappearance 17 years ago and her best friend's recent death -- in her rearview mirror as she drives south to River Song, the beach house Monica left her in Biloxi, armed only with the keys to the home, which was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, and Monica's 5-year-old boy, Beau. For the first time in her life, she has no plan, but, she soon learns that Biloxi, New Orleans, and Monica's estranged family have plans for her.

If you've never lived through a natural disaster common to a particular area, such as hurricanes in the Southeast, it's hard to understand why people choose to live there. Shoot, even when you do live in such an area, it can be perplexing. I live in Florida and I had the same thoughts as Julie after Hurricane Katrina -- why are people going back to a place that's practically designed to flood?

The answer, which is proven over and over in The Beach Trees, is that it's home. It's not home because people own land there, or because they grew up there, necessarily. It's home because they feel like they belong there. Because they love it. Because it's a part of them, and they're a part of it. And that's not something that's easy for someone who's never had to rebuild to comprehend.

Now, those of you who know me well are aware that the thing I'm most interested in when reading a book is the cast of characters, and in many ways, The Beach Trees truly delivers. I love that the area is really a character in and of itself, as are the major storms mentioned, namely Hurricanes Katrina and Camille. But because White essentially wrote a story within a story, with Aimee Guidry, the matriarch of Monica's family relaying a story about her past in the hopes that it might help solve the mystery of why Monica cut ties with her family, we're introduced to a rich cast of characters living in different generations.

Many of the descriptions were clear as a painting -- I can visualize red-haired Aimee, both as a young and old woman. Beau, Trey (Monica's brother), Xavier (the mysterious gardener), Wes and Gary (brothers in Aimee's storyline) -- they're all equally easy to picture, as are many of the other supporting characters. I can see the landscape -- the beach, the homes, the garden -- of both the Guidrys' home in New Orleans and River Song in Biloxi, despite never visiting either city. But for the life of me, I can't picture Julie. I'm not saying White didn't provide a description of her -- it's entirely possible that she did. But, if she did, it didn't make an impact on me the first time I read it through, and didn't jump out at me when I browsed back through the first part of the book looking for it. And it's a shame, because throughout the book, we really see her character grow and change -- I just would have loved as much description of her as we had of some of the art.

Speaking of art, let me touch on the reason for the name of the book. "The Beach Trees" refers to the Katrina trees, which I haven't seen in person but have seen enough pictures of to be totally enamored. If you're unfamiliar, Katrina trees are trees that were killed during the hurricane and transformed into incredible, in some cases lifelike pieces of art. In the book, they're described as "an odd mixture of fragility and strength," which, as it turns out, is pretty darn close to how one might describe the people who remain in areas like these to rebuild after a storm.

While there are a few plot points that are a little too easy to see coming, I thought this was a really enjoyable read. It wasn't a "can't put it down" type of book, although there were certainly parts where I had to give myself a time limit because it was really getting juicy, the two-storyline style made it a bit easier to walk away and come back later, which I actually appreciate. I loved seeing this area, which, along with the people living there, were still recovering from a catastrophic storm, through the eyes of a total outsider. And, as someone who, like the main character, really likes to have a plan and be in control, I liked following her journey in a new home with new priorities. If you're looking for a book that will take you to somewhere new (and, you know, you don't already live in Biloxi or New Orleans), I'd say it's worth picking up this summer.