THE SECRET BOOK OF FLORA LEA
MAY 29, 2023
WUAL APR The Daily
This week, Don reviews “The Secret Book of Flora Lea” written by Patti Callahan Henry.
In the early autumn of 1939, the British knew the German air raids on London would soon be coming. Civilians would be bombed by the Luftwaffe in what would be known as the Blitz. To protect their children, the mothers and fathers of London sent them to safety—some to Canada, some to the United States, but most to the English countryside. In three days, 800,000 children were evacuated in Operation Pied Piper. (Even at the time, some must have realized this was an odd name for the operation. In the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, after the Pied Piper has successfully rid the town of Hamlin of rats and the town fathers decide not to pay him his fee, he leads the children out of town to drown in the nearby river.)
In Patti Henry’s new novel, 14-year-old Hazel and 5-year-old Flora Lea Linden are two such child evacuees. With only a small knapsack for their possessions, they are taken by train from their home in Bloomsbury to the little town of Binsey in Oxfordshire. There they are fortunate to be chosen by Bridget, called Bridie, Aberdeen, a kind, generous woman, already a widow.
The children are nevertheless sad and frightened. To cheer up her younger sister, Hazel makes up a tale of an invisible world filled with magic, secret shimmering doorways only they can pass through. She imagines: “a woodland, a river, a castle far off. In this place, there were no wars or heartbreak. You could do as you please, become whatever you like.” The magic place is called Whisperwood. This is comforting, but, one day, Flora disappears, perhaps drowned in the river that ran through their meadow.
Twenty years later, in 1960, Hazel learns of a children’s book, published in America, called, to her astonishment, Whisperwood. Hazel is sure no one in the world knew of this magical, made-up place except Flora. Did Flora tell someone, and the story got passed somehow to America, or is Flora alive, perhaps herself the author? Hazel has a strong spiritual dimension, and she has been given a sign. She knows in her body this book, this story, will lead her to Flora.
The investigation, painful and difficult, begins. Henry moves the action from a London bookshop to Oxfordshire, which Patti Henry has loved since writing “Becoming Mrs. Lewis,” to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. We learn that for 20 years, Hazel has been suffering with guilt. Convinced that a few minutes of neglect allowed Flora to disappear, she has not allowed herself happiness in her life or loves.
This novel is filled with a cast of memorable, quirky and, almost without exception, loveable characters, including the “foster” mother, Bridie. She is a singular creature—named after both an Irish goddess and a Catholic saint, a kindly, agnostic feminist and sunworshipper. Already a bestseller, this story about the power of storytelling demonstrates the full maturation of Patti Callahan Henry’s narrative powers.
Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.
THE SECRET BOOK OF FLORA LEA Author: Patti Callahan Henry Release Date: May 2, 2023 Publisher/Imprint: Atria Books Pages: 368 Hardcover, e-book, audio, hardcover, paperback, and audio CD Narrator: Award-winning, Cynthia Erivo by Simon & Schuster Audio