Monica Guidry, a New Orleans native, escaped to New York City and spent the last ten years of her life there. She met Julie Holt at an exhibition of Julie’s great-grandfather, Abe Holt’s, paintings. The two women grew as close as sisters, and when Monica became desperately ill due to a congenital heart defect, Julie cared for her and her young son, Beau. Tragically, Monica died while waiting for a heart transplant.
In her will, Monica not only designated Julie to serve as Beau’s guardian; she bequeathed her interest in her family’s beloved vacation home, River Song, situated on the shore in Biloxi, Mississippi, to Julie. Monica had sketched River Song for Julie, and told her so many stories about happy summers spent there with her family and intricate details about the house itself, that Julie feels practically as though she had been there herself.
Julie Holt has been searching for her sister, Chelsea, since she disappeared in 1993. Julie has always carried tremendous guilt about her little sister’s disappearance because her mother asked her to watch Chelsea while she ran to the store. In the blink of an eye, Chelsea vanished. Julie’s father and brother came to believe that Chelsea was dead. But to her dying day, Julie’s mother never gave up hope and neither has Julie. She has continued to scour the internet for leads and remained in touch with the detective assigned to the case, passing on any small tidbit of information that might develop into a lead.
But when she lost Chelsea, Julie also lost any sense of permanence in her life. She lacks the ability to plan for the future, amasses collections of random items — which she later discards or sells without sentimental attachment — and has not felt connected to a place that she can truly identify as home.
As the story opens, Julie has quit her job in order to care for Beau, purchased a minivan from the Reagan era, and, along with five-year-old Beau, embarked upon a journey to Biloxi where she expects to find the beach house for which the attorney handling Monica’s estate gave her the key. Unfortunately, all that Monica finds is the shell of River Song. It was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, a fact Monica obviously did not know.
What else will Monica find in Biloxi and New Orleans? As she becomes acquainted with Monica’s brother, Trey, and the woman Monica referred to as her grandmother, Miss Aimee, Julie realizes that the Guidry family has many secrets. Determined to find out why Monica left the home she loved so abruptly, severed connections with her family, and never returned, Julie finds herself examining the forces that have shaped her own life, and realizing that she must make decisions about her future — and Beau’s.
The Beach Trees is an epic novel about family secrets and the way in which our family histories impact our personalities, the choices we make, and our motivations for those choices. Set against the backdrop of the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, best-selling author Karen White explores what it means to consider a place home and how Julie eventually learns that rebuilding following disaster is not, as she initially opines, “shortsighted” or “egotistical.”
At the outset, Julie is a lost soul. In the years since her sister disappeared, Julie has essentially lived her life in suspended animation, going through the motions, poised for her life to begin again when Chelsea’s whereabouts are learned. She was not prepared to become the full-time guardian of a five-year-old boy, but is determined to ensure that Monica’s wishes are carried out, especially in light of Monica’s estrangement from her family.
En route to New Orleans and the Guidry home, Monica stops at the home of Ray Von, the aged woman who was employed by the Guidrys for many years. Ray Von holds a package for Julie, delivered for safekeeping by Monica — a portrait of Caroline Guidry painted by none other than Julie’s great-grandfather, Abe Holt. It is valuable and Julie determines to sell it in order to earn enough money to support herself and Beau until she can decide whether she is going to remain in Biloxi and permit Beau to develop a relationship with Monica’s family. It is the painting that brings Julie face to face with Trey and Miss Aimee, who claim that Monica stole the painting. But why would she do that?
Beau is an adorable, bright, but damaged little boy who carries his mother’s red knit hat with him everywhere and sucks his thumb. Julie is extremely protective of him and not ready to entrust him to Monica’s family, even though he is the mirror image of his Uncle Trey and the two instantly bond. Julie is also drawn to Trey, despite her misgivings and suspicions. After all, he is so much like Monica and they have a lot in common. Both have lost sisters and, as Julie learns in the ensuing months, so much more. Worse, Julie learns that Trey actually holds a one-half interest in River Song, so they become reluctant partners in rebuilding it.
The story is told in alternating first-person narratives. Julie describes her journey. In conversation with Julie, Miss Aimee tells her own life story, gradually revealing the mysteries of the Guidry family. Miss Aimee tells Julie at the outset that they are going to tell each other their stories in hopes that they will find the key to why Monica left and never returned. The two women’s stories are intriguing, with Miss Aimee describing her childhood summers at her grandmother’s house which was next door to the Guidry home in New Orleans, the mysterious murder of her mother, and her friendship with the two Guidry brothers, Wes and Gary, that would ultimately define her life.
There are many parallels between the devastation of the Gulf Coast and protagonist Julie Holt’s life. It was necessary to delve into the realities of the despair faced by those who have lost so much. . . . [A]s Julie meets the survivors of Katrina, she begins to learn that great loss isn’t necessarily the end.~ Author Karen White
Author Karen White seamlessly weaves the two narratives into a cohesive mystery, set against the backdrop of not just Hurricane Katrina, but also 1969’s Hurricane Camille, which also brought devastation to the area, although not on nearly the same scale as Katrina. Still, Camille significantly damaged River Song and it was Miss Aimee who rebuilt it, so she encourages Monica to do the same now. White brings authenticity to her fictional story through references to actual events and places, including Beach Boulevard in Biloxi, Mississippi where the fictional River Song is located. In the steet’s median, marine-related figures have been sculpted into dozens of standing dead trees, victims of the saltwater storm surge of Katrina. They stand in silent testament to the resilience of the people of Biloxi, evidencing that something beautiful can be born even of a disaster as immense as Katrina. As Julie comes to understand the Guidry family history, she also appreciates the beauty of the Katrina trees and what they signify to the survivors of Katrina.
The Beach Trees is engrossing, with each successive chapter’s revelations heightening reader curiosity about the Guidry family’s truth and the reasons why Monica fled. In the hands of a less capable writer, the family saga could easily have devolved in melodrama, but White never allows the story to become maudlin or trite. Attribute the story’s believeability to the fact that White conducted extensive research into her topic, and her characters are based upon composites of the stories of real-life Katrina survivors. Julie and Miss Aimee are surrounded by a compelling cast of supporting characters, including the two Guidry brothers, both of whom loved Miss Aimee and both of whom she loved. Particularly poignant and moving is the story of Carol Sue, who lost her husband, Trey’s law partner, to Katrina. His body was not found for two weeks and in one particularly memorable scene she explains to Julie that she understands what it is like to wait for news about a loved one, praying each day for a desired result. The result is a memorable tale of how one woman learned, through profound loss, to let go of her sorrow, heal, and rebuild her life. Just like the residents of New Orleans and Biloxi have rebuilt their beautiful cities and their lives — never forgetting, but moving on.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of The Beach Trees free of charge from the author in conjunction with the TLC Book Tours review and virtual book tour program. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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