May 19, 2023
Mix "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" with a touch of "84 Charing Cross Road," a dash of "Gone Girl" and a pinch of Jane Austen, and you have best-selling novelist Patti Callahan Henry's latest romantic mystery.
Henry, who divides her time between Alabama and Bluffton, S.C., turns to England this time for "The Secret Book of Flora Lea."
It's 1939, and two English sisters, 14-year-old Hazel, and 5-year-old Flora Lea, are evacuated from London to escape the Nazi Blitz, like the Pevensie children in C.S. Lewis' tale.
They're placed in a village outside Oxford with a kindly single mom and her son, Harry, who's about Hazel's age. Things are good, but to calm Flora's anxieties, Hazel starts telling her stories about a magical land called Whisperwood. You can enter it, not through a wardrobe but through a "shimmering door" in the woods. There, you can be a talking owl, a frog, a fairy or anything you like and have all sorts of adventures.
Then Flora disappears. Police fear she's fallen into the Thames and drowned; her soggy teddy bear is found by the river's bank. Hazel blames herself, thinking Flora had wandered off to find a door to Whisperwood. Hazel had been distracted at the time; she was kissing Harry.
Fast-forward to 1960. Hazel now works in a rare bookshop in the Bloomsbury district of London; she's about to head off to Paris with her boyfriend, Barnaby, an aristocratic professor.
But then a box arrives from America: a new fantasy novel by one Peggy Andrews, together with original drawings from the first edition.
Hazel thumbs through the book and is shocked. Basically, Andrews tells the whole story of Whisperwood: the shimmering doors, the river of stars, and all the things Hazel made up for Flora. There's too much detail to be coincidence.
Now, as far as she can remember, Hazel never told her Whisperwood stories to anyone but Flora. So how did this Peggy Andrews find out about them? Could Flora possibly still be alive after all these years? Could Peggy Andrews somehow BE Flora?
An expensive long-distance call to America doesn't help. Peggy Andrews abruptly hangs up on Hazel.
So Hazel has to reopen the search for Flora on her own, retracing their steps. Along the way, she's reunited with Harry, who's now an up-and-coming painter trying to capture the light of the coast of Cornwall.
There's a Happily Ever After at the end of this yarn, but plenty of twists and turns in the interim. Among other points, Hazel has to decide between Barnaby and Harry.
"The Secret Book of Flora Lea" seldom cites Narnia, but it reflects Henry's intense interest in the life and works of C.S. Lewis. Among her other novels are "Becoming Mrs. Lewis" about the Oxford don's improbable marriage to the American Joy Davidman, and "Once Upon a Wardrobe," a young-adult story.
And as she often does, Henry gives readers a history lesson. In her 2021 novel "Surviving Savannah," she retold the story of an antebellum shipwreck off the North Carolina coast. (Some of the survivors washed ashore in what is now Pender County.)
More: Book Reviews In the new book 'Surviving Savannah,' Southern shipwreck saga has ties to Wilmington
In "Flora Lee," she tells the remarkable story of "Operation Pied Piper," the British program which moved more than 3 million British children to the countryside. Most, like Hazel and Flora, were temporarily adopted by villagers. Some were shipped to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. (That effort was slowed in September 1940 after a German U-boat sank the SS City of Benares and 77 of the child evacuees aboard were drowned. That tragedy inspired Hazel Gaynor's novel "The Last Lifeboat," due out next month.)
Beyond history, though, "The Secret Book of Flora Lea" is a parable about the human need for stories and how seemingly silly fairy tales can give children and adults strength, courage, and resilience.
by Patti Callahan Henry
Atria Books, $28.99