Type: Contemporary Romance
Reviewer: Pistol Annie
Sweet tea, corn bread, and soup beans-everyday fare for eight-year-old Alix French, the precocious darling of a respected southern family. But nothing was ordinary about the day she met ten-year-old Nick Anderson, a boy from the wrong side of town. Armed with only a tin of bee balm and steely determination, Alix treats the raw evidence of a recent beating that mars his back, an act that changes both of their lives forever. Through childhood disasters and teenage woes they cling together as friendship turns to love. The future looks rosy until the fateful night when Frank Anderson, Nick’s abusive father, is shot to death in his filthy trailer. Suddenly, Nick is gone-leaving Alix alone, confused and pregnant. For the next fifteen years she wrestles with the pain of Nick’s abandonment, a bad marriage, her family and friends. But finally, she’s starting to get her life back together. Her divorce is almost final, her business is booming, and she’s content if not happy — until the day she looks up and sees Nick standing across the counter. He’s back…and he’s not alone. Once again Alix is plunged into turmoil and pain as Nick tries to win her love, something she resists with all her strength. Only one thing might break the protective wall she’s built around her emotions-the truth about Frank Anderson’s death. But when that truth comes out and those walls crumble, neither Alix nor Nick is prepared for the emotional explosion that could destroy as well as heal.
A long time ago (12 years), before I ever became a part of Goodreads or book blogs or Facebook, I was trolling for something different and cheap to read during a long stretch of time when my boss was gone and the office was empty. I came upon an unknown-to-me author, Katherine Allred, who had just released a new book published by Ellora’s Cave, a publishing company that also was unknown to me. At that time, I was strictly a hardback book kind of reader, mostly those written by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Sandra Brown, Linda Howard, Lisa Kleypas, Judith McNaught or Nora Roberts. But the cover of this book drew my attention because there was an old car that resembled one my dad had driven when I was little sitting under tall leaf-filled trees that I assumed to be the sweet gums. When I read the book blurb and found that Alix’s grandfather was a judge, that fact added an extra layer of appeal because at that time I was working for a federal judge. Noting the less than $3 price (paperback today is selling for $35), I decided to go for it. This little gem seemed somewhat of a sleeper. As I became more involved in other areas of the reading world, it was years later in 2011 that I finally became aware of an awakening in the interest for the book that had long ago become my go-to for a re-read and my number one recommendation to others. Since that time, I don’t think I’ve read more than three or four negative reviews, but there have been positive reviews and comments and praises aplenty.
The first time I opened the book and began to read, I was shocked to find a story that was filled with so much more depth and quality than I ever expected or imagined. Most importantly though, was the intrigue of the symbolism attributed to the sweet gum tree in the very first paragraph and the significance it would play throughout the pages. The author’s writing style and wording were creatively notable. The southern charm pours from the pages and you feel as if you are a member of the family attending the church picnic, eavesdropping on a sister’s private thought, or being admonished by one of the judge’s life lessons. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
The magic truly appears in that first encounter between Alix and Nick. The story is told from Alix’s first person narrative. Set in a small southern town, two young children (about the same age as my grandchildren now, 7 and 10 years old) are drawn to each other through tragic circumstances that will truly break your heart while it likewise melts it. Alix is smart, a book lover, and a child of privilege, yet giving and kind. Nick, on the other hand, grew up on the wrong side of town, often going hungry, and raised by only his father, the town drunk. For Alix, Nick becomes not only her hero, but the object of her goodwill, too, and she defends him ferociously.
Throughout the years, Alix and Nick’s lives are filled with a multitude of emotions running the spectrum as they grow up as best friends and protectors, into adulthood where life throws them some very difficult curves and hardships that eventually tear them apart. It is during this time that your heart will be shredded and it’s hard to envision a happy ending ahead. Throughout their life’s journey, there is always something quite captivating and surprising though, whether it’s the sweetness of everyday life or the heart breaks that are sure to invade.
With the inclusion of an Epilogue that deserves every sigh, ooh and aah, along with the sobs and tears, smiles and praises that have been bestowed, readers are sure to revel in the total saga. Even after my umpteenth read, the story still shines brightly, and I will never stop singing the praises of Alix and Nick’s story.
THE SWEET GUM TREE is absolutely among my top five favorite romance books ever — and I’ve read a ton of books. It will remain on my keeper shelf until that shelf and I are long gone. It has the honor of being the one that sparked my interest in trying new genres and searching out new authors. Years later, I’m still on the road of discovery and have been places I never thought I would go. Guess Dr. Seuss knew what he was talking about!