Can the stories we tell ourselves have the power to save us?
In THE SECRET BOOK OF FLORA LEA, Patti Callahan Henry brings us a tale within a tale as we meet 14-year-old Hazel and her five-year-old sister, Flora. Their father is killed the first week he starts training to fight in WWII, and the family is bereft from his loss. When their very loving mother goes to work to do her part in the war effort, Hazel cares for Flora and tells her stories to keep her busy and happy. We especially see the sisters' bond as they are evacuated from London, separated from their mother, and sent to a small village on the River Thames near Oxford.
"The story is not as straightforward as it might seem, and there are plenty of twists to keep us reading as we race to find out what really happened to Flora."
Hazel and Flora are heartbroken to be away from their mother, but as is clearly depicted, they've been luckier than many. Bridie Aberdeen and her son, Harry, are caring people, and their home is warm and welcoming. Hazel entertains Flora with stories of Whisperwood, a fantastical place that is entered from secret doorways that lead into its magical world. There the girls can transform into any creature they want to become. The stories keep Flora entertained, and when they roam the nearby woods, the Thames becomes their own "river of stars" from their secret world. Hazel is very protective of their story, and they share it with no one --- not even Harry, who has become close to them and with whom Hazel is forming an attachment. The stories calm Flora and make her feel safe because no one can harm them in their fantasy kingdom.
One day, when Harry and Hazel are distracted for a few minutes, Flora disappears. Although everyone searches far and wide for her, she is never found. It is assumed that she fell into the Thames and died. Yet Hazel has never accepted Flora’s death, although her mother has remarried and has another child, a son. Hazel feels overwhelming guilt that it was on her watch that her sister vanished.
The story is told in several time periods, mostly in the "present" year of 1960. But there are chapters, clearly labeled, that take us back to the evacuation and their time in Binsey, a tiny, insular village in Oxfordshire, in 1939. In 1960, Hazel is working at a shop that sells rare books and manuscripts. She loves her job, and the men who own Hogan’s Rare Book Shoppe are almost like family to her. One day, a package arrives containing a first edition book from America and original artwork. It’s titled Whisperwood, and the story is hers. Or rather, the story that she and her sister shared are detailed in its pages.
How is it possible that someone knows about their secret story? While the tale has changed a bit, it's almost exactly the magical place that Hazel had created only for Flora. Is Flora still alive, and did she write this book? The author is reclusive and lives in America. There are no available pictures of her, and the publisher is evasive when Hazel calls to inquire about her.
The rest of the novel unfolds in several timelines as we see what led up to Flora's disappearance and how Hazel is determined to discover who wrote this story that only could have been created by Flora. The quest takes her in several different directions and affects the lives of others in sometimes wonderful ways. Hazel has to find not only her sister, but also herself. She must carefully consider the direction she wants for her own life. What choices that Hazel made were because of that childhood guilt, and what might she decide now? Will she leave the quaint bookstore for the posh Sothebys, marry her boyfriend, Barnaby Yardley, and fit into his wealthy snobby family? Or will she listen to her heart?
The story is not as straightforward as it might seem, and there are plenty of twists to keep us reading as we race to find out what really happened to Flora. Plus, we want to know what Hazel will do and how she will live her life. Finishing the book leaves a warm, satisfied feeling in your heart. It's almost as if we, too, had visited Bridie's cozy cottage and been entertained and fed well at her table. The descriptions of the English countryside make us feel like we've been on holiday there, enjoying the beautiful scenery. It's also a cautionary tale of how little we know what lurks under the facade of those we meet.
Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on May 5, 2023
The Secret Book of Flora Lea
by Patti Callahan Henry
Publication Date: May 2, 2023
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Atria Books
Narrator: Award-winning, Cynthia Erivo by Simon & Schuster Audio