REVIEW – The Sweet Gum Tree by Katherine Allread

sweet gum tree

The review is dedicated to my beloved Rae, the strongest Steel Magnolia I know.

I may lapse into my SERIOUS Southern drawl for this one. The Deep South is like a foreign country to me, complete with an accent that I struggle with as a gal with a news anchor-worthy Midwestern accent that is flat as a pancake.

SWEET BABY JESUS, this was a great read, Y’all.

This is my introduction to Katherine Allread. This novel is over 10 years old, but got a renewed serge of popularity when some other bloggers resurrected it. I love a bandwagon as much as anyone, so I got my drums and played along.

It  should be noted that this book falls nicely into several of my favorite plot devices. Unintended Pregnancy, Wrong Side of the Tracks Makes Good, and Second Chance Love.

The Sweet Gum Tree also has a nice, big, juicy couple of twists in the middle. I had their resolutions figured out almost immediately after I caught my breath. Even so, knowing this information didn’t change my enjoyment of the story post-twist. Not at all, in fact. Waiting for everyone else to catch up was sort of fun, actually.

The story starts with 8-year-old Alix and 10-year-old Nick. Nick’s from a horrible family of a junk-yard owning abusive father. Alix lives in a happy extended family of her mother, two aunts, and grandfather. Her grandfather, the Judge, is the patriarch of not just the family but much of the small southern town. Alix is used to justice being the highest calling, which is why one encounter with a recently abused Nick is all it takes for her to decide to save him.

It wasn’t until I was a grown woman that I realized the true nature of the tree. A sweet gum is the chameleon of wood, its corky exterior hiding its inner ability to imitate anything from cherry to mahogany. But its real value, one unrealized by most people, is its deep red heart, steady and strong. They see only the pale fibrous wood, easily warped, that surrounds the core. Like the town of Morganville saw Nick Anderson.

Of course, it’s never easy to help someone in such dire circumstances, and Alix learns early that it’s not always enough to want to help. You do what you can and hope the rest gets better.

When Nick is nearly beaten to death by his father, Alix’s family offers him informal refuge in a furnished room in their barn. Nick’s father is threatened by the Judge and the town Sheriff not to fight Alix’s family. Nick doesn’t want to end up in a state home, so the arrangement works out well. And the future is now very clear. Nick protects Alix. Alix provides friendship and stability to Nick. Everything is good until puberty arrives in time to complicate everything. The writing is on the wall.

Nick’s first reaction is always to pull back from pain. Alix’s is always to run headlong into it. The miscommunication sets up the climax and entire second half of the book.

This book is a romance and our two youngsters evolve from childhood into a stunning, intense love story. The sexual encounters are not explicitly written, but resonate all the same. If you allow yourself to slip inside Alix’s head, you will have some hard lows and some amazing highs. The hangover on this book was pretty strong for me.

The taste of Southern living runs through the dialogue like a lovely, syrupy sweet tea. Regarding the town’s meanest, nastiest, most gossipy, husband-stealing woman:

I lost count of the times I heard, “bless her heart” flying around, all aimed at Piggy. A northerner walking in when this was going on would probably think there was something seriously wrong with Piggy and everyone was expressing sympathy. But we southerners know that you can insult someone as much as you want so long as you add that “bless her heart” to the end of your comment.

Morganville is a place where respectability is valued ahead of all other virtues. Therefore, Nick and Alix can never be viewed as equals as adults until Nick makes good and moves past his birthright. How will he do it?  How will Alix contribute to it? Read on, my friend. Read on.

The ending is delicious and reading this book is an exercise in having your heart broken, walling it up, and then being willing to risk those walls coming down for a second chance at everything you ever wanted. It is a study in miscommunication, pride, and overreaction, as all the best stories tend to be.

5 stars

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