In FLORA, Gail Godwin has woven an unforgettable tapestry of a Southern family and their tragedies through the eyes of a preteen girl. Through the narrator, the now-adult Helen who is looking back at the summer she turned 11 years old, the author captures the essence of that age with feeling, empathy and innocence.
World War II is drawing to a close, and it’s summer in North Carolina with the Anstruther family --- father Harry, young daughter Helen, and paternal grandmother Nonie. The Anstruthers live together in an old family house on a mountaintop. At one time, the residence was a place for “Recoverers” --- patients returning to their ordinary lives after bouts with tuberculosis, inebriation or mental problems, and still needing time and a place to transition.
Helen’s grandfather was a physician when Nonie married him, and her father is a widower and a polio survivor who is left with some side effects. The Anstruthers know about transition as they are already a family who understand suffering.
"The novel is indeed beautifully written, but it is Gail Godwin’s understanding of human frailty that is the real hallmark of this tale. FLORA is a reading experience that this reviewer will never forget."
The story begins with the death of Nonie, who became Helen’s caregiver after her mother passed away when she was three. The almost-11-year-old Helen is convinced that if she had been at the store where Nonie’s heart gave out, she could have quickly found the nitroglycerin pills in Nonie’s purse, put them under her tongue, and her life would have been saved. Helen is distraught over the loss of the stable presence of her grandmother, whose ghost lingers in her mind.
Helen is a smart, imaginative child on the verge of moving into adolescence while enduring near-impossible tragedies in her life. Can her young sensibilities cope with all that has happened to her and all that has yet to happen? First her mother is gone, and now her grandmother. Her father still suffers from the effects of polio and drinks too much, but he is doing the best he can for his daughter. When Harry must go to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to spend the summer working on a secret project having to do with the war, he leaves Helen in the care of his wife’s first cousin, Flora Waring.
Flora, who is only 22, travels from Alabama to care for Helen during the summer while she is applying for teaching positions for the fall. She has visited the Anstruther household before, but Helen isn’t ready for a new maternal figure in her home. She views Flora as a country hick who talks too much and cries at the drop of a hat. Is she as simple as she seems? Flora tries her best to care for Helen, although Helen believes she is taking care of Flora. Who will look after whom?
As the summer progresses, Flora hopes to hear about a job and Helen waits for her father’s return. Life, though, brings one difficulty after another. One of Helen’s friends is stricken with polio, while another friend’s father is transferred and the family must move away. And then Harry calls and warns Helen and Flora to stay home and away from people due to the polio scare.
With the two of them now isolated, Helen is still not quite sure what to make of Flora. Helen is trying to be the keeper of the house and of her grandmother’s way of life. How does Flora fit into that pattern? They spend more time together and share stories with each other about Nonie. Helen learns some truths about her mother, and all the while, Nonie’s presence is felt as a guiding force in their lives.
When Finn, the young grocery delivery man who is still struggling with the post-traumatic effects of his service in the war, meets the two ladies of the house, trouble stirs. Two young women --- one on the verge of adolescence, the other on the verge of finding her independence --- vie for his attention.
On the eve of Helen’s birthday, Flora makes a meal and Finn comes over. When Helen catches Flora and Finn kissing, she runs off, setting events in motion that will forever change her life. This is a story about loss and self-discovery amidst life’s terrible hardships, at an age when so much of life is yet ahead.
The writer’s voice rings clearly and concisely throughout the book, revealed in the complexity of character, complicated relationships, and definitive place and time. The author also has created a rich and meaningful context for what is a difficult but touching coming-of-age story. Profound phrases, insightful passages and heartwarming dialogue grabbed hold of this reviewer’s mind and never let go. The novel is indeed beautifully written, but it is Gail Godwin’s understanding of human frailty that is the real hallmark of this tale. FLORA is a reading experience that this reviewer will never forget.
Reviewed by Jennifer McCord on May 15, 2013