Prize-winning author Gail Godwin has returned to her southern roots to weave a tight little tale in her newest novel, “Flora” (2013). Her narrator, writer Helen Anstruther, recounts a story set in the summer of 1945 when she is 10 years old and has to stay back in her North Carolina home while her father is away doing top secret government work at a military plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Watching over her for those months is Flora, a 22-year-old distant cousin who has moved up from Alabama to help out before beginning a career in teaching.
Helen’s mother had died when she was 3, and the child has recently witnessed the sudden death of her beloved grandmother who had cared for her since then. Since no one can compare with her wise and companionable grandma Nonie, Helen is unhappy with her father’s choice of a relative she barely knows.
Flora is kind and eager to please, but Helen is openly dismissive of her sweet, barefooted cousin. She seems so simple to the precocious girl. Flora’s eyes well up with tears at the slightest thing and, as Helen surmises, “layers had been left out of Flora. All of her seemed to be on the same level.” Helen does not hide the fact that Flora is the only adult she has ever felt superior to.
To make matters worse, two cases of polio have broken out in town. Out of fear of an epidemic Helen’s father has quarantined the two to the rambling old family home. They must not interact with townspeople or have any guests, so the two have only each other’s company. Helen says, “I was beginning to see how the whole summer was going to be. Meals and Flora. Flora and meals. … She was already preparing supper, though we had hardly finished with lunch.” Things look unbearable to her.
The dynamics between the two change when a tall, redheaded ex-serviceman named Finn starts delivering their groceries. He brings fascinating stories of his war experiences and his recuperation in a hospital. Finn starts coming more often. When things break down in the old place, he can fix it all.
The older Helen begins her narration by musing whether remorse over “regrettable acts” that occurred one summer in her childhood were helpful in shaping her. Readers are alerted right away that this story that seems so simple will lead to something unfortunate, and we can feel it brewing in the stagnant atmosphere of that house.
Godwin teases us with her title, “Flora,” yet the novel is not about Flora but what Flora’s presence brought out in that young girl during her 11th year.
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