Flora: A Novel

Flora: A Novel

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by Gail Godwin
     
 

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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

Overview

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 a 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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Remorse may be the defining emotion for our narrator, Helen, but Godwin the writer has nothing to regret: Flora is an elegant little creeper of a story.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR Fresh Air

“Godwin is repelled by the saccharine psychology of our age. In her finest books, including the three that have been finalists for the National Book Award, we confront spiritual matters in unusually hard terms . . . [The narrator's] recollection of that tragic summer, turned over and over in her mind for years, is something between a search for understanding and a mournful confession. But finally it's a testament to the power of storytelling to bring solace when none other is possible.” —The Washington Post

“Three-time National Book Award finalist Godwin creates memorable characters and conversations that carry us effortlessly toward a dark denouement, one that infuses the rest of Helen's life with profound appreciation for Flora's unguarded heart.” —People

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.” —Boston Globe

“Like Turn of the Screw and Atonement, Flora is a study of the way ghosts can haunt our childhood memories while guilt haunts our lives.” —Wiley Cash, author of THIS DARK ROAD TO MERCY

The Washington Post - Ron Charles
…witty and moving…The incidents of this plot are daringly few: A boring summer during which nothing happens is a challenge most novelists should avoid. Godwin, though, has the psychological sensitivity to make these still, humid days seem fraught with impending consequence…The success of this trim novel rests entirely on Godwin's ability to maintain the various chords of Helen's voice, which are by degrees witty, superior, naive and rueful…Her recollection of that tragic summer, turned over and over in her mind for years, is something between a search for understanding and a mournful confession. But finally it's a testament to the power of storytelling to bring solace when none other is possible.
The New York Times Book Review - Leah Hager Cohen
Gail Godwin's 14th novel, Flora, offers a veritable taxonomy of orphans: from the conventional, both-parents-died variety to the quasi-orphan (one parent still nominally in the picture) to the elective orphan (a runaway) to the reverse-orphan (a parent unmoored by the loss of a child). In fact, as the story unfolds, we realize it's populated almost exclusively by orphans of different stripes. It's a mark of Godwin's light, sure touch that this doesn't feel contrived. On the contrary, it begins to feel natural, inevitable that beneath the surface of any individual we'll find a lonesome soul, cut adrift.
Publishers Weekly
Narrator Helen Anstruther, “going on eleven,” is the relentlessly charismatic and wry star of this stirring and wondrous novel from Godwin (Unfinished Desires). In the summer of 1945, in the mountains of North Carolina, Helen is trying to make sense of the world since her beloved grandmother’s death. When her father leaves to do “secret work for World War II” in neighboring Tennessee, this becomes much more challenging, and Helen, motherless for years, is left in the care of 22-year-old Flora, a delicate and, Helen might say, hopelessly effusive relative. Helen has grown up in a rambling old house that once served as a home for convalescent tubercular or inebriate “Recoverers” under the care of Helen’s physician grandfather. For a precocious girl who has lost everyone who’s ever loved and known her, the house becomes a mesmerizing and steadfast companion. Though Flora initially appears to Helen as little more than a country bumpkin, their time together profoundly transforms them both. Godwin’s 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. Agent: Moses Cardona, John Hawkins & Associates. (May)
Library Journal
Ten-year-old Helen is a precocious, imaginative child who must spend the summer with her guardian, Flora, while her father is in Oak Ridge, TN, during the last months of World War II. Helen is a "haunted little girl" who lost her mother at age three and whose grandmother, who raised her, has just died. She and her late mother's cousin, 22-year-old Flora, are isolated in Helen's family house on a mountaintop, quarantined from the polio that threatens their community. Helen is resentful of her caretaker, Flora, who cries easily and appears to Helen to be unsophisticated. But Flora is singled-minded in her attempts to do right by Helen. The aftermath of that formative summer will steer the course of Helen's life and haunt her forever. VERDICT 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.—Lisa Block, Atlanta
Kirkus Reviews
Godwin (Unfinished Desires, 2009, etc.) examines the intricate bonds of family and the enduring scars inflicted by loss. In the summer of 1945, 10-year-old Helen Anstruther has just lost Nonie, the grandmother who raised her after her mother, Lisbeth, died when she was 3. Helen's father, the discontented, hard-drinking principal of the local high school in Mountain City, N.C., needs someone to stay with her while he does "more secret work for World War II" in Oak Ridge, Tenn. So he asks her mother's 22-year-old cousin, Flora, and, when one of Helen's best friends comes down with polio, insists that the pair remain at home to avoid the risk of infection. It's a bad idea: Weepy, unbuttoned Flora seems like a dumb hick to snobbish little Helen, who at first makes a thoroughly unappealing narrator. But as Godwin skillfully peels back layers of family history to suggest the secrets kept by both Nonie and Lisbeth (some are revealed; some are not), we see that Helen is mean because she's terrified. She's already lost her mother and grandmother, she's afraid her polio-stricken friend will die, and another close friend is about to move away--after delivering some home truths about how "you think you're better than other people." Helen got this trait from Nonie and both her parents, we realize, as Flora's comments gradually reveal how cruel Lisbeth was in her eagerness to leave behind her impoverished background. As usual with Godwin, the protagonists are surrounded by secondary characters just as fully and sensitively drawn, particularly Finn, the returned soldier whose attentions to Flora spark Helen's jealousy and prompt the novel's climax. Not all mistakes are reparable, we are reminded, but we learn what lessons we can and life goes on. 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781620401224
Publisher:
Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
03/04/2014
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
721,228
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Flora

A NOVEL


By GAIL GODWIN

BLOOMSBURY

Copyright © 2013 Gail Godwin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62040-120-0


Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

There are things we can't undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of ser vice 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 storytelling, 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 grown-up. 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.")

My grandmother asked if the well-spoken new teacher was "the kind of person we'd like to invite to dinner." She probably wouldn't come, my father said, because she was a chilly sort and hadn't seemed to like him very much. But Nonie insisted on asking her and she came. Her name was Elizabeth Waring, but by the end of the evening she had asked them to call her Lisbeth. She had been orphaned at eight and raised by two uncles and a live-in maid. The first thing she said when she walked into our house was how wonderful it must be to live in such a house. "I fell in love with her first," Nonie liked to recall. "And then, one night, when the three of us were playing cards, Harry finally looked across the table and realized what he could have."


Flora came with her father, Fritz Waring, to my mother's funeral. They rode on passes because he worked for the railroad. My mother had caught pneumonia during a stay in the hospital. "There was a lot of it that year—if only they could have gotten sulfa in time they might have saved her." When I was older Nonie explained that it had started with a miscarriage. "They'd been trying to get you a little brother or sister, but I guess you were meant to be one of a kind, Helen."

I was three when my mother died and have no recollection of the funeral, or of fifteen-year-old Flora, though Nonie told me Flora would sit me on her lap at meals and try to feed me little morsels from her plate, which I refused. "One time she cried into your hair. She had been telling us how, since she was a small child, she and your mother slept in the same bed. She confided to us she had always slept with one leg over Lisbeth to keep her from going away. At this point your father rolled his eyes and left the table.

"It was a very strange week for us. This was the first time we had met any of your mother's people. This little man with shaggy eyebrows and a bulldog face steps down from the train with his arm around a sobbing young girl in a black coat way too old for her. 'She feels things' were Fritz Waring's first words to us. Immediately after the funeral, he apologized for having to ask us to drive him back to the train station. He had to be on duty next day. 'But we've hardly even spoken to the two of you,' I said. 'Oh, Flora can stay on with you awhile,' he said, 'if she won't be any trouble.'

"I was pretty surprised but I tried to hide it. I told him we would love to have her stay on for a little while. After all, this was your mother's own first cousin. Shouldn't we want to know her better? And, as a student of human nature, I have to say I found Flora's visit eye-opening. It was interesting to observe how very different two girls could be who had grown up in the same house. Though of course there was the big age difference: Lisbeth was twelve when the infant Flora came to live with them. Even their speech! Whereas Lisbeth spoke like a stage actress and held herself back in speech and person, Flora's southern accent was so thick you could cut it with a knife and she burbled and spilled herself out like an overflowing brook. She asked us the most intimate questions and offered disconcerting tidbits about her people in Alabama. She wanted to know why your mother was in the hospital in the first place and where everyone slept, and she would stand in the open door of the wardrobe where your mother kept her clothes and snuffle into her dresses. She told us proudly that the black coat she wore had been borrowed from the Negro woman who lived with them. One time when she was retelling how she had slept with her leg over your mother 'so she wouldn't abandon her,' she went on to explain that her own mother had left town as soon as she was born. Your poor father found more and more excuses to go out on errands, and by the end of Flora's visit he was taking his cocktails up to his room."

The year after my mother's funeral, Fritz Waring was shot during a high-stakes poker game and Flora and Nonie's great correspondence began. The sixteen-year-old Flora had written Nonie a long, emotional letter with the gory details (he had been shot between the eyes) and Nonie had answered back. Immediately came a second letter and Nonie felt it was her duty to reply, and this went on until her death. Flora always started her letters "Dear Mrs. Anstruther," and signed them, "Your Friend, Flora Waring."

"The poor child thinks I am her diary," Nonie would remark, reading Flora's latest letter. Sometimes she would shake her head and murmur, "Gracious!" The letters disappeared before anyone else could read them. "Young people shouldn't write down personal things they might regret later," Nonie said.


Flora rode the train to Nonie's funeral in the spring of 1945. She was in her last year of teachers' college in Birmingham and hoped to begin teaching in the fall.

"Flora's turned into a looker," said my father, making it sound like something short of a compliment. "Though not in your mother's style."

When friends came back to our house after the funeral, Flora greeted them and passed platters and refilled glasses like she was part of the family, which I suppose she felt she was. After the crowd had thinned, we noticed that a cluster of people had gathered around Nonie's wing chair and then we saw that Flora was sitting in it—the first person to do so since Nonie's death. She appeared to be telling a story. Everyone was rapt, even Father McFall, the circumspect rector of Our Lady's, though he was careful to register a degree of separateness by the quizzical twist of his brow. Flora, softly weeping, was reading from something in her lap. When my father and I edged closer we saw that she was reading aloud from Nonie's letters.

I can still see Flora, the way her large, moonlike face floated out at you from the frame of the wing chair. She wore her dark hair swept back from a middle parting, then falling in soft waves over the ears and pinned up loosely at the nape of the neck, a style you often see in movies and television dramas being faithful to the late 1930s and early '40s. Her forehead was spacious, though not high, and her wide-apart brown eyes, when they were not silky with tears, conveyed an ardent eagerness to be impressed.

What she was reading from my grandmother's letters seemed to be snippets of the kind of soldierly counsel Nonie loved to dispense to everyone. About taking control of your life and making something of yourself. But after listening for a minute, my father sent me over to tell Flora he wanted to speak with her in the kitchen and that was the end of the per for mance.

I have often wondered if that was when he broached the idea of her staying with me while he went back for his second summer to the construction job in Oak Ridge, where they were making something highly secret for the war effort. This would have been in character. My father loathed displays of emotion and he may have decided to offer me up, since he needed someone anyway, rather than to reprimand Flora about the letters and evoke her gift of tears.
(Continues...)


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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author


Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award finalist and the bestselling author of twelve critically acclaimed novels, including A Mother and Two Daughters, The Good Husband, Father Melancholy's Daughter, and Evensong. She is also the author of The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961-1963, the first of two volumes, edited by Rob Neufeld. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts grants for both fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Woodstock, New York. Visit her website at www.gailgodwin.com.

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Flora: A Novel 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
RANYC More than 1 year ago
Whether you're a fan of Gail Godwin or new to her work, Flora is a must. Set in the summer of 1945 in the increasingly shabby family home on a mountain in North Carolina, nearly orphaned 10-year-old Helen welcomes (not eagerly) her young aunt Flora (another orphan), who will be in charge of her while her father does important war work in Tennessee. Helen longs for her grandmother (who died trying on Easter hats in town), fumbles friendships, and pins her hopes on Finn, a young man who delivers groceries and is also an artist. Not particularly pleasant, Helen will get under your skin anyway, as will the setting, the great secondary characters, and the suspense that builds as the summer of Helen and Flora--and World War 2--draws to a close.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Creative. Loved the characters, the setting, and the plot. Very good job. A++++
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although the style was a tad turgid, I generally enjoyed this novel. The characterization was sharp and Godwin's details created empathy for the characters, both living and dead. The book is a "coming of age" novel.....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've been waiting for a read like this for months now. Well worth the small investment!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A coming of age book written from the oersoective if a bratty 10 year old. A really engaging read.
beh88 More than 1 year ago
Well written Sad and disturbing
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love Godwin's books. Spot-on characterization. The somewhat dark and moody tone to which I am partial. The ending was a little neat, but not regrettably so.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I very much like the way the story is told. The characrers are well developed and i could relate to them.
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bessie1913 More than 1 year ago
I'm just finishing this book. It's a good read and takes me back to my 10 year old crushes and fancies.
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Excellent!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wallks in. Wearing a black lace br<_>a and tho<_>ng.