When a woman discovers a rare book that has connections to her past, long-held secrets about her missing sister and their childhood spent in the English countryside during World War II are revealed.
In the war-torn London of 1939, fourteen-year-old Hazel and five-year-old Flora are evacuated to a rural village to escape the horrors of the Second World War. Living with the kind Bridie Aberdeen and her teenage son, Harry, in a charming stone cottage along the River Thames, Hazel fills their days with walks and games to distract her young sister, including one that she creates for her sister and her sister alone—a fairy tale about a magical land, a secret place they can escape to that is all their own.
But the unthinkable happens when young Flora suddenly vanishes while playing near the banks of the river. Shattered, Hazel blames herself for her sister’s disappearance, and she carries that guilt into adulthood as a private burden she feels she deserves.
Twenty years later, Hazel is in London, ready to move on from her job at a cozy rare bookstore to a career at Sotheby’s. With a charming boyfriend and her elegantly timeworn Bloomsbury flat, Hazel’s future seems determined. But her tidy life is turned upside down when she unwraps a package containing an illustrated book called Whisperwood and the River of Stars. Hazel never told a soul about the imaginary world she created just for Flora. Could this book hold the secrets to Flora’s disappearance? Could it be a sign that her beloved sister is still alive after all these years?
As Hazel embarks on a feverish quest, revisiting long-dormant relationships and bravely opening wounds from her past, her career and future hang in the balance. An astonishing twist ultimately reveals the truth in this transporting and refreshingly original novel about the bond between sisters, the complications of conflicted love, and the enduring magic of storytelling.
Patti Callahan Henry is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of several novels, including Surviving Savannah and Becoming Mrs. Lewis. She is the recipient of the Christy Award, the Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year Award, and the Alabama Library Association Book of the Year. She is the cohost and cocreator of the popular weekly online live web show and podcast Friends and Fiction. A full-time author and mother of three, she lives in Alabama and South Carolina with her family. Find out more at PattiCallahanHenry.com.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1 Not very long ago and not very far away, there once was and still is an invisible place right here with us. And if you are born knowing, you will find your way through the woodlands to the shimmering doors that lead to the land made just and exactly for you.
HAZEL MERSEY LINDEN, 1939
On a red blanket by the river, six-year-old Flora Lea Linden awakens alone, a dome of blue sky above her and birdsong wild about her. Someone called my name? She glances around the green expanse, at the churning water of the River Thames furrowed with winks and puckers as it nearly overflows its banks, taking to the sea anything or anyone who dares to enter its rush.
The river surges toward Oxford where students hurry to and from tutors under pinnacled towers standing guard over cobblestone streets. Then the waters bend and curve, gathering force, bouncing against the stone walls and locks of England until they reach London, where bombs are plummeting to city streets, delivering ruination, where smoldering cathedrals and crushed homes litter the river with their ember and ash.
Did someone call my name? Flora sits and rubs her eyes. She’s not exactly alone. She has Berry, her stuffed teddy. And she isn’t frightened. Why should she be? Her older sister, Hazel, told her many times that these woodlands belong to them, that the shadowed glade and the sacred sunlit puddles where the canopy of trees opens wide is a safe place meant for the two sisters, created just for them.
She stands and carefully steps closer to the river. Hazel refuses to go with Flora to Whisperwood anymore, so what’s she to do but go alone? It’s hers!—not to be abandoned: the glowing castle and the grove of alder, the chattering squirrels and animated trees.
Hazel had told Flora that the glinting lights on the river were stars and galaxies, rushing to meet the sea. Hazel had ordered her not to ever become the river, as they became other woodland creatures, nor should Flora ever drink from the river. If she did, she was told, she would never find her way back to Mum or Bridie or their warm cottage in the heather-strewn fields.
This enchanting river was—like the apple in the Bible—forbidden.
But Flora doesn’t believe this beautiful, starry river can be dangerous. She clings to Berry by his worn, furry paw and ventures nearer to the water’s rush, thrilled at her boldness. No one knows what might happen to her on this adventure or who she might become.
She hears a voice nearby in the woods, familiar, but Flora ignores it.
The way here was through a shimmering door, and Hazel was too busy to see it. The river is Flora’s companion, her friend, and this intimacy has her creeping ever closer to its edge.
Hazel never wants them to pretend to be bunnies, so that’s what she’s decided today. Flora will be a bunny.
She stares down at the river’s churned-up waters, looking for stars but seeing only mud and silt, humps of river-smoothed rocks underwater. She skids down on a soggy, earthy incline, her wellies slipping where the browned grasses of October change to mud. Falling on her bum, Flora laughs.
What an adventure!
Berry slips from her hand as her palms and fingers dig into the wet earth to keep herself from tumbling into the frigid waters. She scoots closer, wanting to grab Berry. He’s too close to the river.
“It’s okay,” she says as she reaches for his paw, repeating her sister’s words: “It’s our land. We’re always safe in Whisperwood.”
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Twenty years after WWII, a woman’s life is upended when she discovers a mysterious book set in the imaginary world she created for her sister after being evacuated from war-torn London. Could this book be the key that helps her solve her sister’s disappearance? This moving novel is sure to delight fans of Once Upon a River and The Paris Library. Keep reading to discover the power Patti Callahan Henry sees in books, reading, and stories that speak to the heart.
The summer months are almost here, which means it’s time to build those TBR piles. If you’re trying to prepare your reading list for vacations, lazy weekends, or afternoons inside trying to beat the heat, we recommend starting with our most anticipated books coming this May!