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Book Review: Flora 

click to enlarge Flora, Gail Godwin, Bloomsbury, 2013, $26
  • Flora, Gail Godwin, Bloomsbury, 2013, $26

During the final months of World War II, high-school principal Harry Anstruther encamps to Tennessee to do secret war work, leaving 10-year-old daughter Helen and her summer guardian, Flora, isolated together in a decaying house in Mountain City, North Carolina, where a polio scare looms. Motherless since age three, Helen clings to the former grandeur of her mountaintop family home, haunted by memories of her doting paternal grandmother, Nonie, who has recently died. Given to confusing snobbery for gentility, the young "lady of the house," by turns precocious and acerbic, believes herself superior to 22-year-old Flora, her late mother's cousin. Though overly emotional, the sincere caretaker unwittingly will transform Helen, who henceforth will question the meaning of "simplemindedness" versus "simple-heartedness"—of sorrow versus remorse.

Fleet and engrossing, bestselling author Gail Godwin's fourteenth novel hinges on multigenerational intrigues, divulged piecemeal by retrospective narrator Helen, destined to become a writer of "elegiac tales." The opening chapters establish that her mother and Flora—also born 12 years apart—were reared in the same Alabama household by two uncles and "the Negro woman who lived with them." By the time of her arrival in Mountain City to serve as Helen's companion, Flora has "just finished her training to become a teacher." She likewise has absorbed womanly advice via a five-year letter-writing correspondence with Nonie, whose own crisscrossed youth had involved "running away from the family farm and her greedy new stepmother and menacing stepbrother." Culled from flashbacks and the cache of letters, broader versions of family lore expand against the backdrop of Flora and Helen's interactions. Godwin also aims for historical veracity—men wear suits to dinner and women Easter hats to church; townsfolk share telephone party lines and tolerate war rations.

For Flora and Helen, there's little escaping each other at erstwhile Anstruther's Lodge, at one time directed by Nonie's doctor-husband and catering to "well-paying convalescent tuberculars or inebriates" called "Recoverers." Now known as Old One Thousand (after its street address at the crest of Sunset Drive), the manse smothers the mismatched pair, ordered quarantined by Helen's father, himself once afflicted with polio due to a misbegotten youthful romance. But Recoverers of a different sort still appear on the scene. Housecleaner Mrs. Jones clings to thoughts of a daughter who died young, sharing her communiqués from beyond the grave with Helen, who herself has been hearing Nonie's voice. When Finn, dishonorably discharged and still shell-shocked from the war, shows up on a three-wheeled motorcycle to deliver groceries, jealous rivalry ensues.

The mindset of imaginative Helen is particularly affecting throughout. About Flora, the younger cousin ruminates: "my goal was to get along with her on the surface for the rest of the summer while keeping my serious schemes to myself." Retreating to the privacy of Nonie's garaged Oldsmobile, she indulges a particularly favored fantasy: "I went...on with my story of how it would be when Finn came to live with us. Any branch of the story would lead to satisfying little branchlets. Finn's driving lessons could turn into the first time he lets me drive to school and how everyone sees me with him the passenger seat..." Veering toward inevitable fatality, Flora makes a vivid impression.  A masterful novelist, Woodstock resident Godwin reminds readers how the derailments of youth can change the direction of adult life.

Appearing 5/12 at 4pm, Golden Notebook, Woodstock.

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