Updated: Jun 21
BY PATTI CALLAHAN HENRY
“Ultimately, it is the importance of stories and the necessity of storytelling that underpin everything in this beautiful, heartrending novel. Stories can bring us together, create an unbreakable bond between people, reveal things we might not otherwise be able to see about ourselves, our lives, and the world we live in; stories, even though imagined, can carry the truth. It is the story Hazel created which makes its way back to her across time and space, and finally leads her to the truth.”
During World War II, two sisters are evacuated to the countryside, where tragedy strikes. Twenty years later, the elder sister receives a book that takes her on a journey to discover the truth about what happened all those years ago.
In Patti Callahan Henry's novel, The Secret Book of Flora Lea, sisters Hazel and Flora Lea Linden are sent to Binsey, Oxfordshire at the beginning of World War II, in the mass evacuation of children from London known as Operation Pied Piper. Despite their age difference, fourteen-year-old Hazel and five-year-old Flora are close. To help her younger sister and get them both through the horror of the war, the loss of their father, and the trauma of being evacuated away from their mother, Hazel creates a fantasy woodland world called Whisperwood and the River of Stars, a safe place just for them. Using their imaginations and Hazel's storytelling gifts, they escape through shimmering hidden doors to this magical land, where they can become any creatures they want to be and go anywhere they want to go. But when a tragedy occurs, Hazel abruptly stops telling stories and abandons her dreams of becoming a writer.
Twenty years later, Hazel is about to leave her job at Hogan's Book Shoppe in Bloomsbury, London, for a new position as a specialist in rare books and manuscripts at Sotheby's.
On her last day at the bookshop, she is cataloging a set of new arrivals when among them she finds a new fairy tale by an American author named Peggy Andrews with illustrations by Pauline Baynes, the original illustrator of C. S. Lewis's Narnia books. The first illustration she sees is one of two girls in a magical woodland with a white castle and a river full of stars. The book's title is Whisperwood and the River of Stars and brings with it the terrible memories and loss of twenty years before. How does the American author know about the secret world of the two English sisters in wartime Oxfordshire?
"Lying, the telling of beautiful things, is the proper aim of art." Oscar Wilde's famous quote is repeated by the character Peggy, the young American author whose book is the catalyst for the events of the 1960 strand of the story. "Beautiful untrue things carry the truth," Peggy says, encapsulating one of the core themes of this novel. Hazel's hunt for the truth as to how and why Peggy knows her childhood secrets takes her and the reader on a compelling, poignant journey involving a number of twists and turns, similar to the winding trail through Whisperwood itself. Sometimes she is led to dead ends, but the spark of hope remains ever alive that what happened in the past may not be what it seemed, and that the truth can be found in the journey of the story itself. As the novel travels back and forth through time, the mystery at its heart is skillfully unraveled, events and memories gradually unlocking the grief and guilt at the center of Hazel's life.
In the 1940 story, the misery, loneliness, and fear of evacuation are powerfully evoked, as is the idyllic Oxfordshire village where Hazel and Flora are taken in by widow Bridie and her teenage son Harry. The reader's immersion in the sisters' world as children enhance our investment in the adult Hazel's journey to uncover the truth about the tragedy that haunts her: our empathy for her deepens as the book progresses and reveals more about the past. Although there are occasions when Americanisms in 1940s England seem out of place (e.g., the children talk about "math" rather than "maths"), this is a minor linguistic point. All the characters are well-drawn and convincing – even those who may not be deserving of sympathy are multi-faceted and their motivations believable if shocking.
Ultimately, it is the importance of stories and the necessity of storytelling that underpin everything in this beautiful, heartrending novel. Stories can bring us together, create an unbreakable bond between people, and reveal things we might not otherwise be able to see about ourselves, our lives, and the world we live in; stories, even though imagined, can carry the truth. It is the story Hazel created which makes its way back to her across time and space, and finally leads her to the truth.
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Beyond the Book
This article relates to The Secret Book of Flora Lea
In Patti Callahan Henry's The Secret Book of Flora Lea, Hazel Linden, 14, and her sister Flora, 5, are evacuated to Oxfordshire during Operation Pied Piper in World War II. To help Flora through the trauma of war and evacuation, Hazel creates a secret magical woodland world called Whisperwood and the River of Stars, to which she and Flora can escape through hidden doorways in the real world and have adventures. However, the creation of Whisperwood and the telling of stories becomes a terrible burden to Hazel, as she blames it for the tragedy that lies at the heart of the novel. In her grief and guilt, she stops telling stories and abandons her dream of being a writer. Only when she receives a book written by an American author about Whisperwood twenty years later does she set off on a journey of discovery to uncover the truth about the past and come to terms with it. Just as the teenage Hazel instinctively understands that creating an imaginary world will help her and her sister through the horrors of war and evacuation, psychologists and mental health experts have long believed that stories and storytelling can help children deal with fear, worries, and trauma. They urge parents and teachers to encourage children not only to read about imaginary worlds, but, like the Brontës, C. S. Lewis, and the fictional Hazel, to create their own stories and imaginary worlds. During COVID-19 and its attendant traumas, early years practitioners at the Lewisham Children and Family Centres suggested that children might be encouraged, for example, to create a story about a superhero who conquers the virus and keeps everyone safe. The stories children create can be expressed through writing, drawing, or painting, all therapeutic activities used to alleviate trauma. As well as helping children cope with hardship, the creation and experience of imaginary worlds are essential to their cognitive, social, and emotional development, enabling their creativity and invention to evolve and thrive. As children in the nineteenth century, the Brontë sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, and their brother Bramwell, lived in Haworth, an isolated village on the Yorkshire moors. Using their imaginations and knowledge gained from extensive reading, they invented Glass Town, a fictional city out of which Charlotte and Bramwell created the imaginary kingdom of Angria, crafting stories in this setting. While Angria did not have fantastical, mythical, or supernatural elements, Charlotte created a whole society replete with colorful characters. The two younger sisters, Emily and Anne, "rebelled" and broke away, creating their own fictional country of Gondal. The Brontës' juvenilia is comprised of poems, fragments, and short stories, written in microscopic script in tiny books so that their dolls could read them. Gondal and Angria were their secret worlds, outlets through which they freed themselves from the constraints of their isolated lives and experimented with writing. C. S. Lewis also created an imaginary world as a child to escape from loneliness, fear, and, ultimately, grief. At age eight, Lewis brought together his stories about a place called Animal-land with his brother Warnie's imaginary tales about India to create the anthropomorphic fantasy world of Boxen. Like the Brontës, Lewis and his brother were isolated as children, kept indoors because of an influenza epidemic, and they became avid readers. Lewis continued writing about Boxen through the traumas of his mother's death when he was nine years old and being sent to schools where he was abused and bullied. His own imaginary world helped him through a difficult childhood and was a precursor to his celebrated Narnia books. In The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1979), Ursula Le Guin wrote, "There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories." Experiencing imaginary worlds begins in our earliest childhood, whether through the children's literature, we read and discover for ourselves, or the worlds of our own that we create and inhabit as children. Storytelling and imaginary worlds are a necessary, integral part of our common humanity from a very early age.
Map of the Glass Town Federation and surrounding lands, by Branwell Brontë, in The History of the Young Men from their First Settlement to the Present Time, courtesy of The British Library
Filed under Books and Authors
Article by Jo-Anne Blanco
This article relates to The Secret Book of Flora Lea. It will run in the June 21, 2023 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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