My Rating: 4.5 stars
The Sweet Gum Tree is a haunting, beautiful, heart-breaking, lovely, soul-healing novel. Ms. Allred has done a terrific job with it because this book is so touching that it heals your heart.
The Sweet Gum Tree is a story that spans over ten years and it is from the point of view of a little girl called Alix French. She comes from a very respectable family with a unflappable mother and her two fussy aunts. The respectability of the French family is mostly derived from her grandfather whom she calls Judge because he was a judge. One day, when the Judge is fixing his car, Alix meets Nick, a boy two years older than him. And when she sees the scars from a belt buckle on his back, she can't help but try to help him.
While other kids may be scared of Nick's closed off demeanor, Alix is determined to help this boy. The further Nick retreats, the more Alix chases him, inviting him to a picnic and introducing him to her mother. I love it when Nick finally realizes that Alix will never stop and gives up. He becomes her closest friend and her protector through the years of growing up.
But it ends all too quickly. When Nick is accused of shooting his father, he is given the choice to join the army or face jail time. He chooses the army, leaving teenage Alix behind.
“No one should have to go through life with only half a heart,” he whispered.”
As the years go by, Alix retreats within herself, walling herself away, even from the ones closest to her heart. She stops sharing secrets with her best friend, Jenna. She divorces her husband, Hugh. It saddens me to watch the old, bright Alix slowly fade away, leaving nothing but a cold, stern woman with haunted eyes behind.
And when Nick finally returns, many years later, Alix is so closed-off that he can't even get to her. It makes you wonder: What made her like this? What happened while Nick was gone? Why has Alix become like this?
Alix is a beautiful, multifaceted character. She can be cruel at points and she makes some big mistakes but who doesn't? I love it when the characters are realistic because there is no such thing as a perfect person. The things that Alix experience, the memories that Allred highlights are especially important because they are a reflection of our lives. Whether you're a teenager or an adult, you have or are experiencing a part of Alix's life. In that way, Allred makes the book very relatable, giving us realistic characters who make mistakes.
Nick is a beautiful man. He's beautiful on the outside but he is also gorgeous on the inside. He is always kind, fair and generous which is incredible considering his father abused him for years. His heart is so big that he has the ability to love everyone. But I love him most for his faithfulness to Alix. Through it all, he has always seen Alix as the one for him. When she didn't realize it, he reminded her. Separate, they were great people but together, they were spellbinding.
There are a few reasons why I loved this enchanting book. Number one: Katherine Allred's writing is personal and honest. It gives us a feeling of the simplicity of life, of living in the South and its society. Of a little girl named Alix trailing behind her grandfather, listening with wide eyes to his stories. Of Nick and Alix meeting for the first time. It's a very clean feeling and I really liked it which is ironic since this book is all about secrets and cover ups.
The second reason this book hit me hard is the length of it. Not just the number of pages but the time it spans. Like I've said, it envelopes a big section of Alix's life, from when she is seven, to when she is in her thirties. Each part of her life is explored in depth and while I love it when authors give you a little peek into the childhood of their character, I love it even more when we get to really experience their childhood. In the case of The Sweet Gum Tree, Alix's teenage years are really given details and I felt like I was right beside her as she discovered boys and things about herself. In that regard, Allred makes Alix's story come alive, creating a journey for us all.
Last reason: the symbolism. Oh, Katherine Allred is an expert at tugging at your heartstrings. Every time she described the setting, I felt like I was looking in on the scene as it was happening. But what I enjoyed the most was the symbolism. You may have wondered at the title. The sweet gum tree is a big symbol for Nick and Alix and their intertwined lives. It stands for strength, honesty and truth to the very end. In spite of hardship and time, Nick and Alix found their way back to each other. The sweet gum tree is a symbol of their great love and courage because "the deep red wood stays true to its nature."
I adored seeing everything the characters did.
I treasured this book.
I really encourage you guys to try it! And please comment if anything comes to mind!
"You can’t turn love on and off like a light switch, no matter how hard you try. All you can do is wall it off, one brick at a time, until you’ve created an impenetrable fortress around your emotions. And once that fortress is built, you camouflage it so well that even you can’t see it anymore.”
“Lies and half-truths hurt not only the liar, but the people they love most.”
“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.”
“He always was someone. Because the core of the sweet gum tree never changes. Like Nick, the deep red wood stays true to its nature. Strong, and steady, and pure.”