The Beach Trees: Southern Fried Family Secrets

BlogHer Review
I have fond memories of visiting Biloxi, Mississippi, the setting for The Beach Trees by Karen White, as a child. My family traveled there two or three times when we were kids. But the strongest memory I have amongst those white washed plantations and long stretches of coast line is walking on the beach one morning with my younger brother and my grandmother, when we spotted a dead dog several yards down the shore line. My brother and I started to cry once we realized what it was. And in her genius, my grandmother tried to distract us from our mourning. She told us that dead animals, especially those that have been in the water have a lot of gasses all caught up inside of them and that if we threw rocks at the body, all those gasses caught up inside it might make it explode. Our eyes bugged out. We stopped crying immediately and with a grim fascination spent the next half hour chucking small rocks as far as we could, aiming for explosion. Finally some other beach combers strolled past us, quickly realized what we were doing, gave my grandmother the stink eye, and we dropped our rocks and all scurried away, laughing, with my grandmother making us promise not to tell my parents what we had been up to.

And those types of family secrets, big and small, are what make up the power and punch of The Beach Trees. The Beach Trees follows the story of Julie Holt, who after her best friend Monica dies, becomes the guardian of Monica’s young son Beau and owner of her Hurricane Katrina decimated beach house. As Julie travels South to figure out her next steps, she introduces Beau to his grandmother and uncle for the first time. And begins her next job, unraveling the great mysteries of Monica’s family, the Louisiana Guidrey’s.

Just like my own caring and quirky grandmother, this story is split between Julie’s own present day story, and the story of Monica’s grandmother, Aimee, set in the 1950’s and 60’s. The story bounces back and forth between these two women, slowly unraveling the reasons why Monica fled and never returned to her home when she was just eighteen and carefully bringing Julie, who faces her own family tragedy, and Monica’s brother closer together. Karen White has gently constructed a multi-generation family story filled with women and men with deep secrets, painful motives and shattered love. This is a dramatic story, set in a lush and beautiful setting between New Orleans and Biloxi. But there is a gentle beauty to the story. The very real friendships and understanding that develops between Aimee, Julie, Beau and the rest of the cast of characters lends a depth and heart that elevates this to more than just a beach read. The secrets come out, there is healing and closure, and change in this novel but throughout all these revelations, one thing holds and cradles this family, their homes. Whether battered and rebuilt or filled with dark secrets and hidden paintings, these Southern homes, in these humid sultry states are the backbone of the story.

Karen White brings you south, into these warm dwellings and spaces and makes you want to stay. I now have an entirely different memory of Biloxi in my head. Thanks to the well crafted tale from Karen White. I see wind swept bungalows and tall old oak trees lining Beach Avenue in Biloxi, Mississippi. They are leafless and limbless, brutalized by the salt water flooding of Hurricane Katrina. They are transformed into soaring eagles, frolicking dolphins and bobbing seahorses. These damaged and injured trees, through the effort of devoted sculptors, become something new, something vital and something powerful. And that is exactly the transformation that Julie Holt makes in this novel. Through contact with the Guidrey family and little Beau, Julie sheds her damage and lets these people work their Southern charm and hospitality on her detached, cool Yankee exterior. And that’s exactly what Biloxi and New Orleans did to me as a kid, it warmed and charmed and shared it’s mysteries, and it brought my family closer together, sometimes in the strangest ways.

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