Patti Callahan Henry’s historical novel revisits WWII-era Operation Pied Piper.
"The Secret Book of Flora Lea” by Patti Callahan Henry is an enchanting work of historical fiction about two sisters who are impacted by Operation Pied Piper — the British relocation of more than 3 million children from urban to rural housing during World War II. Using an inventive blend of myth, fairytale and literature, Henry spins a tender and heartening story about the lasting bonds of sisterly love and the lifetime impact of war trauma.
“Watch out for each other,” are the words Camellia Linden says to her daughters Hazel and Flora in 1939 as her girls board a train bound for an undisclosed location. The same words are still swirling around in Hazel’s head 21 years later while she’s cataloging a new acquisition at work at a rare bookshop. Unwrapping the parcel, Hazel’s breath “puddled in her chest” as she struggles to comprehend how the illustrated fairytale came to exist.
“Whisperwood and the River of Stars” by American author Peggy Andrews shares too many similarities with the imaginary world Hazel invented for Flora while they were billeted in Binsey, Oxfordshire, during the war. It cannot be a coincidence, but it must be. Flora went missing in 1940 when she was 6 years old and is presumed to have drowned in the River Thames. Who could have told Peggy this story? Nobody else knew about Whisperwood, the make-believe land where the sisters would escape when the horrors of the Blitz became too much for their tender minds. Yet somebody knew, as evidenced by Peggy’s book — which goes the 1960s version of viral.
As Hazel embarks on the hero’s journey to discover how Peggy learned about Whisperwood and if Flora could possibly be alive, Henry showcases her love of literature through her protagonist. A lifelong student of the written word, Hazel is about to begin a new job as a rare book specialist at Sotheby’s and is proud to live in her childhood home adjacent to Virginia Woolf’s former residence in Bloomsbury. She won’t leave, in fact, on the slim chance Flora might return. Henry utilizes a dual timeline to voyage between 1940 Binsey and the events leading to Flora’s disappearance and 1960 London. Once an avid storyteller, Hazel spends 20 years believing Flora went into the river looking for Whisperwood and can’t forgive herself. She vows to never again tell her own stories and submerges in other people’s tales to make sense of her broken world.
Carrying that guilt has also stunted her development in other ways. Henry taps into the different vulnerabilities Hazel is reluctant to explore as her character unfurls. Meanwhile, reporter Dorothy Bellamy is writing a series titled “The Lost Children of Pied Piper” who Hazel prohibits from investigating Flora’s disappearance. Barnaby Yardley is Hazel’s brash boyfriend with a painful past that leaves him slow to move their relationship forward, He’s a comfortable fit until Peggy’s fairytale opens “a closed and decaying memory box” Barnaby would prefer Hazel ignore, causing her to question if she’s heading toward the life she wants. From Oscar Wilde to J.R.R. Tolken, Charles Dickens to Jane Austen, Henry’s prose brims with literary references. She takes particular care to emphasize the endurance of myth in stories, using the 7th century legend of Saint Frideswide as a rich starting point. The patron saint of Oxford is credited with bringing forth a healing spring in Binsey, renamed Saint Margaret’s Well in the 12th century, the same well Lewis Carroll brought back into popular consciousness in his 19th century novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
Henry introduces the well in her 20th century narrative as Hazel and Flora are taught Frideswide’s lore by Birdie Aberdeen, the woman who cares for them in Binsey. The legend takes on new relevance for Hazel after Flora’s disappearance, and through this plotline Henry brings home her message that stories can be both reactions to and inspiration for lived experiences.
In the instance of Friedswide, Henry’s inclusion of folklore is delightful and interwoven. Yet there are other instances that don’t tie in so seamlessly. Birdie’s casual mention of Persephone feels incomplete as she offers a veiled attempt to reveal the goddess’s history before mumbling, “that’s a story for another day.” And the brief mention of Imbolc, or St. Brigid’s Day, could have used a stronger anchor to the complex and interconnected plot. The abundance of literary references, partnered with the details of historic events unfolding in war-torn England, creates a dizzying amount of information at times.
Nevertheless, at the heart lies a beautiful depiction of a young girl desperate to shield her little sister from the ravages of war while she’s still a child herself. Henry drives this home with pathos when Hazel discovers Flora hiding while wearing her gas mask after hearing a police siren, the 5-year-old unable to discern a public safety emergency from an external attack.
The parallels between Hazel and Peggy’s lives unpeel slowly as Henry meanders toward her explosive conclusion. Hazel digs deep into her past, reuniting with Birdie’s son Harry — another painful memory she’s reluctant to revisit. And Peggy is forced to face her own buried truths.
Once Henry flicks the first domino, her ending zips into a twisty, rapid reveal. Plotlines coalesce as a multitude of imbedded eggs and lore collide with the unexpected. “The Secret Book of Flora Lea” crescendos into a fantastic love letter to fairytales and an ode to the healing that can come while searching for happily ever after.
FICTION “The Secret Book of Flora Lea” by Patti Callahan Henry Atria Books 368 pages, $28.99