Sunday, May 26, 2013
FLORA by Gail Godwin
Unsparing and compassionate may appear to be contradictory but not in the hands of the ever wondrous Gail Godwin. As distinguished a writer as John Irving has called Flora “a luminously written, heartbreaking book.” It is indeed. Written by the keenest of observers and filled with fully realized characters, even those that might be considered minor, Flora will take hold of your thoughts and heart.
Our narrator is a young girl, Helen Anstruther, who is “going on eleven.” It is she who will later realize the unalterable consequences of decisions once made. But for now it is the summer of 1945, a long, often lonely season in the mountains of North Carolina. It is an especially lonely and confusing time for Helen who has been without a mother for a number of years, recently lost Nonie, the grandmother she adored, and minus her father who has gone off to do “secret work” in Tennessee. The girl is left in the care of Flora, a 22-year-old relative. Helen’s best friend comes down with polio and father orders Flora and Helen to remain in the house lest they also be stricken.
The rundown house itself which was once a home for “Recoverers” (from tuberculosis or alcohol addiction) in Helen’s grandfather’s time becomes a companion/symbol for Helen. She dreams of somehow having enough money to restore it. Flora tries diligently to please Helen but the harder she tries the more she becomes an embarrassment in the girl’s eyes - Flora talks too much, she’s an ignorant country girl. Helen is snobbish, rude to Flora and a thoroughly unlikable child until the reader learns more about her.
Much of this we discover through words of the adult Helen who has become a writer. That now long ago summer is one that transformed her, one she will never forget and neither will we as Godwin thoughtfully carries us to an unexpected denouement.
- Gail Cooke