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The BookBrowse Review

Published May 21, 2014

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Flora
Flora
by Gail Godwin

Paperback (25 Mar 2014), 288 pages.
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
ISBN-13: 9781620401224
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Ten-year-old Helen and her summer guardian, Flora, are isolated together in Helen's decaying family house while her father is doing secret war work in Oak Ridge during the final months of World War II. At three Helen lost her mother and the beloved grandmother who raised her has just died.A fiercely imaginative child, Helen is desperate to keep her house intact with all its ghosts and stories. Flora, her late mother's twenty-two-year old first cousin, who cries at the drop of a hat, is ardently determined to do her best for Helen. Their relationship and its fallout, played against a backdrop of a lost America will haunt Helen for the rest of her life.

This darkly beautiful novel about a child and a caretaker in isolation evokes shades of The Turn of the Screw and also harks back to Godwin's memorable novel of growing up, The Finishing School. With its house on top of a mountain and a child who may be a bomb that will one day go off, Flora tells a story of love, regret, and the things we can't undo.It will stay with readers long after the last page is turned.

I.

There are things we can't undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.

That summer, Flora and I were together every day and night for three weeks in June, all of July, and the first six days of August. I was ten, going on eleven, and she was twenty-two. I thought I knew her intimately, I thought I knew everything there was to know about her, but she has since become a profound study for me, more intensely so in recent years. Styles have come and gone in story-telling, psychologizing, theologizing, but Flora keeps providing me with something as enigmatic as it is basic to life, as timeless as it is fresh.

At the beginning of that summer with her, I seesawed between bored complacency and serious misgivings. She was an easy companion, quick to praise me and willing to do what I liked. My father had asked her to stay with me so he could cross over the mountain from North Carolina into Tennessee while the public schools were not in session and do more secret work for World War II. This would be his second year at Oak Ridge. The summer before, my grandmother had still been alive to stay with me.

Flora had just finished her training to become a teacher like my late mother. She was my mother's first cousin. Embarrassingly ready to spill her shortcomings, she was the first older person I felt superior to. This had its gratifying moments but also its worrisome side. She was less restrained in her emotions than some children I knew. She was an instant crier. My grandmother Nonie, that mistress of layered language, had often remarked that Flora possessed "the gift of tears." As far as I could tell, layers had been left out of Flora. All of her seemed to be on the same level, for anyone to see.

Nonie, who had died suddenly just before Easter, had been a completely different kind of grownup. Nonie had a surface, but it was a surface created by her, then checked from all angles in her three-way mirror before she presented it to others. Below that surface I knew her love for me resided, but below that were seams and shelves of private knowledge, portions of which would be doled out like playing cards, each in its turn, if and when she deemed the time was ripe. My father, who was principal of Mountain City High School, was described as "exacting" or "particular" when people wanted to say something nice about him. If they were being politely critical, they might say, "Harry Anstruther can be very acerbic and he doesn't suffer fools gladly." His social mode was a laconic reserve, but at home, after a couple of drinks, he stripped down to his comfortable mordant sarcasm. His usually controlled limp, from a bout with polio in his teens, became more like a bad actor's exaggeration of a limp.

He married my mother when he was in his early thirties. He was assistant principal of the high school at the time and also taught the shop classes for the boys. He had learned carpentry when he was convalescing from polio. My mother-to-be, a new teacher in her early twenties, came to his office to protest her new assignment. She had been hired to teach English, and after she got there they had added Home Economics, which she felt she had to swallow, she said, because new teachers couldn't be picky. But now the public school curriculum had introduced something called Girls' Hygiene into the Home Economics hour. "I cannot stand up in front of a class and teach this," she told my father. She held the little booklet apart from her body like a piece of garbage. Her disdain along with the "cannot" impressed my father. Though she was from Alabama, she spoke like someone trained for the theater. "The girls would be shocked and disgusted," she told him. "Or they would laugh me out of the room."

My father took the booklet home and after dinner he and Nonie took turns reading aloud from "Social Hygiene for Girls." As I got older, Nonie would recall hilarious examples from this booklet. It became her way of imparting the facts of life to me without the hush-hush solemnity. ("I'll tell you one thing, darling. It made me glad I was brought up on a farm and saw animals go about their natural business without all the clumsy language.")

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Flora by Gail Godwin. Copyright © 2013 by Gail Godwin. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Flora begins, "There are things we can't undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life." What "regrettable acts" is Helen referring to? How does she try to make her remorse "constructive" and "of service to life," in telling the story of her summer with Flora?
  2. When Flora begins, Honora "Nonie" Anstruther is already dead, yet we get to know her intimately throughout the novel. In what ways do we become acquainted with Nonie's voice? What aspects of Nonie's personality are revealed through her loved ones' memories?
  3. Consider the descriptions of Old One Thousand, the Anstruther estate where Helen grows up. How does the house feel haunted by its former occupants, including the Recoverers, Honora, and Lisbeth? What elements of decay contribute to the estate's creepy and isolated feel?
  4. Consider Helen's inheritances from her various family members. In what ways does she resemble her grandmother, her father, her mother, and even her cousin Flora? What personality traits, positive and negative, does she owe to each of these forebears?
  5. Consider the few details Helen reveals about her adult life as she recalls the summer of 1945. If she has written "a collection of stories about failed loves," what might her personal life be like? What might have caused her "breakdown and lengthy stay in an expensive institution," and how has writing helped Helen reconnect with her past?
  6. Finn disagrees with Helen's low opinion of Flora; he says, "I think you are confusing simpleminded and simple-hearted." What does Finn mean by "simple-hearted?" Does this capture Flora more accurately than Helen's youthful opinion of her? Why or why not?
  7. "You've had such a strange childhood," Flora tells Helen. Why does Flora's observation upset Helen? In what ways has her childhood been "strange," and why might young Helen not recognize its oddness?
  8. Discuss the hints of the supernatural in Flora. What might explain the voice Helen hears while sitting in Nonie's car and walking down the driveway? What does Mrs. Jones's intimate relationship with her daughter, Rosemary, suggest about the enduring relationship between the dead and living?
  9. Helen reflects on her game of "fifth grade" with Flora, "We were making up a game that needed both of us...But right here, right in here somewhere, in what we were making together, is located the redemption, if there is to be any." Discuss the ways that Helen and Flora collaborate when they play "fifth grade." What does Helen learn from Flora while they play, despite her assumption that she controls the game completely?
  10. Honora writes to Flora in a 1944 letter, "'Spoken word is slave; unspoken is master,' as the old adage goes." Why does Honora believe in the value of silence over speech? How has Helen inherited Honora's opinions about the spoken and unspoken? How does the novel itself tiptoe the line between secrecy and revelation?
  11. Two past scandals are revealed in Flora: Harry's teenage affair with a Recoverer named Willow Fanning, and the identity of Harry's true father, Earl Quarles. How has the Anstruther family kept these two events under wraps? How does the novel eventually reveal each of these secrets?
  12. Discuss the love triangle of Helen, Finn, and Flora. How does Helen become so emotionally invested in Finn? What fantasies overtake her when she thinks about him? What is the basis of the attraction between Finn and Flora? How does each react to Helen's jealousy and rage?
  13. Helen concludes about Flora, "I thought I knew all there was to know about her, but she has since become one of my profoundest teachers, thought she never got to stand in front of a real class and teach." What lessons about life, love, and generosity does Helen learn from Flora? How does Helen react to Flora's birthday gift of Honora's letters—uncensored, so Helen can "grow into them"?
  14. In the novel, the manufacture of atomic weaponry at Oak Ridge is called the "best kept secret in the history of the world" Discuss the relationship between family secrets and war secrets in the novel. How does the secret history of World War II intersect with the Anstruthers' secrets?
  15. The day after Flora's death and the atomic explosion in Hiroshima, Harry and Finn both appear in the paper, "grouped beneath the caption LOCAL HEROES." What are the ironies of Harry and Finn's supposed heroism? What are the consequences of their "heroic" efforts in the war and at home?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Bloomsbury USA. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Through spare writing and a small cast of characters, Flora maintains a tight focus on a storyline that unfolds through layers of perspective in a small North Carolina town in 1945.

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Gail Godwin's Flora paints a psychological portrait that is at once detailed and deceptive. The year is 1945, and we see the events of one pivotal summer through the eyes of Helen, an analytical narrator who is only ten years old. Helen couches her tale in the language of a mind still growing into itself, a perspective that is naively self-absorbed and precociously articulate in equal measure. Helen is coming of age alone with only her new caregiver, Flora, for company. They live in the North Carolina hills in a rambling house that was once a private sanatorium. Helen thinks she understands how the adult world works, even as she discovers she is missing some of the most crucial facts.

Godwin has stripped her stage of extraneous characters and sets. Helen has recently lost the beloved grandmother, Nonie, who raised her, and her father has been called away to do important war work. He has sent for Flora, her dead mother's cousin, to care for her for the summer, and when polio breaks out in the town, Helen isn't allowed out even to see her friends. In 1945, Helen is not the only one in transition. The war in Europe is over, and her father is one of the men working behind the scenes on the cataclysm that will end the war in Asia. Riveting world events are transpiring off stage, but Helen's domain is reduced to Flora and an empty house full of memories. She must learn to coexist intimately with this stranger, who brings with her perspectives about Helen's beloved family that seem new and threatening. Flora is a youthful adult, emotionally guileless and prone to cry at the drop of a hat. Helen, by contrast, is a child with an adult's calculating mind. Aside from occasional visits from a clergyman, a young Irish grocery deliveryman, Finn, is their only visitor. When he comes, he is both an interloper and a breath of fresh air.

Godwin's style reads as simple and spare, but what seems like simplicity is really a very tight focus. It soon becomes clear that the Helen recounting the story is an older Helen, an adult, herself a writer, engaged in the psychological work of reconstructing her younger self. She allows her imagination to revisit the summer that was a watershed moment in her childhood, and her vision of her younger self is unsparing as she seeks both to record and to understand what transpired. The writer's imagination tinkers with the past, even as it brings it vividly to life. When events take place out of young Helen's field of vision, old Helen can imagine precisely what must have occurred, right down to the dialog.

This layering of perspective is one of the most interesting aspects of Flora. On the book jacket, novelist John Irving aptly likens Godwin's achievement to the pared-down psychological stories of Alice Munro. There are shades of the familiar in Flora, themes a reader is likely to have seen before – say, in Ian McEwan's Atonement. Familiarity isn't necessarily a bad thing, and Flora makes for a pleasurable, comfortable read.

At times the plot contrivances Godwin employs to cut young Helen off from her regular circle of friends and family seem far-fetched – there are a few too many convenient devices for ratcheting up the intensity of Helen's isolated summer. It's also disconcerting to view so many of Helen's stories and relationships second-hand, through her later memories of them. But this remove serves to concentrate all the reader's attention on what goes on in Helen's mind, on her construction of herself and the conversations going on within her own thoughts. It's an exciting effect. The landmarks of history are being laid down in the world around, but in the center of everything a child can only be alone with her own thoughts.

Reviewed by Jennifer G Wilder

MORE magazine
In a coming-of-age novel as exquisitely layered and metaphorical as a good peom, Godwin explores the long-term fallout from abandonment and betrayal, the persistence of remorse and the possibility of redemption.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Gail Godwin’s Flora sneaks up on you. The premise is small, but ambitiously so in the 'small, square, two inches of ivory' sense that Jane Austen used to describe her novelistic palette.

Christian Science Monitor
Flora is a tightly focused, painful and eventually eruptive novel. Its ruminative, sometimes regretful narrator explores the complex heart of a child, showing us that it's not inevitably a sweet, gooey thing. It can be, as well, a shuddering volcanic island with but a single haunted inhabitant.

The Boston Globe
Flora is Godwin at her best, a compelling story about Helen’s growth of consciousness told with fearless candor and the poignant wisdom of hindsight.

Columbus Dispatch
On the surface, Gail Godwin’s luminous Flora is a quiet, simple novel about a few weeks spent in near isolation in the North Carolina mountains in the summer of 1945. Under the surface, however, run currents connecting the lives of the two main characters to those of dozens of others, present and especially past.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. [A] stirring and wondrous novel from Godwin…. [her] thoughtful portrayal of their boredom, desires, and the eventual heartbreak of their summer underscores the impossible position of children, who are powerless against the world and yet inherit responsibility for its agonies.

Booklist
Starred Review. [T]he wonder of this incisive novel...is how subtly Godwin laces it with exquisite insights into secret family traumas, unspoken sexuality, class and racial divides, and the fallout of war while unveiling the incubating mind of a future writer.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Unsparing yet compassionate; a fine addition to Godwin's long list of first-rate fiction bringing 19th-century richness of detail and characterization to the ambiguities of modern life.

Library Journal
A superbly crafted, stunning novel by three-time National Book Award award finalist Godwin (A Mother and Two Daughters), this is an unforgettable, heartbreaking tale of disappointment, love, and tragedy. Highly recommended.

Author Blurb John Irving
Flora is a novel as word-perfect and taut as an Alice Munro short story; like Munro, Godwin has flawlessly depicted the kind of fatalistic situation we can encounter in our youth — one that utterly robs us of our childhood and steers the course for our adult lives. This is a luminously written, heartbreaking book

Author Blurb Ann Patchett, New York Times bestselling author of State of Wonder and Bel Canto
Flora is a beautiful examination of character and the far-reaching repercussions of our actions. Gail Godwin brings grace, honesty, and enormous intelligence to every page.

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Polio in 1940s North Carolina

March of Dimes poster about polio In the fictional North Carolina mountain town at the heart of Gail Godwin's Flora, a 1945 polio scare takes the life of one child and paralyzes another while the community scrambles to contain the disease. These tragedies, which form part of the cultural fabric of Godwin's fictional world, echo real events that took place in rural North Carolina in the 1940s, when the polio epidemic was peaking there. In 1944, the mountain town of Hickory, NC, experienced a devastating polio outbreak. When local facilities were not adequate to house the stricken, most of whom were children, residents mobilized. They repurposed a rustic health camp that had been built the year before for children recovering from tuberculosis, and built a new hospital on the spot. Tent wards were erected, and the one stone building on the site held the worst cases. Water, electrical, and phone service were brought in, and beds and equipment collected. Medical staff, in short supply during wartime, came from all over the country to help. The hospital opened to patients just 54 hours after the outbreak began, a feat which went down in history as the "Miracle of Hickory."

People who grew up in the environs of Hickory remember being kept indoors in summer when the polio epidemic was raging, as Helen is in Flora. Children were especially susceptible to infection, although polio can strike at any age. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the most high-profile American survivors of polio, was 39 when he was infected.

Polio iron lung ward at Haynes Memorial Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, 1955 Poliomyeletis is an ancient disease, but its increasing prevalence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is thought to be related to improvements in water supply and sanitation. The virus is transmitted through fecal-oral routes, primarily in contaminated water, and before sanitation the germ was everywhere. Constant exposure from infancy created a certain degree of immunity, and most cases of illness occurred in babies and toddlers. Under cleaner conditions, children didn't encounter polio until they were older and more at risk for developing a more severe form of the disease. Complications from paralytic polio, which affects the central nervous system, could lead to skeletal deformities. Many polio victims suffered muscle paralysis affecting their breathing; for some it was permanent but for others it was possible to treat the disease and get a partial/complete recovery, so long as the lungs could be kept going through the paralysis by external means. The negative pressure ventilator, or "iron lung" used for this purpose, and developed in America in the 1920s, became a familiar symbol of polio and the forerunner of the kind of medical support we now know as "Intensive Care."

Polio vaccines began to emerge in the early fifties as the epidemic continued to spread, and it was Jonas Salk's 1955 vaccine, used to mass inoculate school children, that began to stem the spread of the disease. Today polio is the target of a massive eradication program. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative lists three countries where polio is still endemic – Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. India was declared polio free in 2012.

Pictures from National Museum of American History

By Jennifer G Wilder

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