Flora by Gail Godwin

This was my first reading of a Gail Godwin book, so I honestly didn’t know what to expect.  The plot line sounded modest yet intriguing, and the promise of a North Carolina mountain setting pretty much sold me.flora

Helen is a motherless ten-year old who lives with her father and paternal grandmother in a decrepit hilltop house originally used for “recoverers” – those on the mend from tuberculosis or mental illnesses that had the time and money to recover a little extra longer.  It’s an empty place for a child to ramble, and it becomes more so when Helen’s grandmother dies quite suddenly.  Her father is soon to leave as well – it’s the last year of World War II, and he is headed to Oak Ridge for good paying work of which nothing can be spoken.  He recruits Flora, a cousin of his deceased wife, to take care of Helen while he is gone for the summer.

Flora is a piece of work, at least in Helen’s discerning eyes – she cries practically on cue, and is perpetually eager to please.  Helen, a smart and precocious child, does not see Flora as an equal.  Regardless of what, they are stuck together for most of the summer, and become even more isolated when the fear of a polio outbreak leaves them stranded at their mountain house.

There is contact eventually, in the form of the grocery delivery man, a good-natured ex-soldier who brings out conflicted emotions from both Flora and Helen.  He provides much-needed company, but Helen is jealous of his attentions toward Flora.  Their interactions spark the tension that gears this book up to its startling ending.

I wasn’t sure if I would like Flora, but I did.  The book disturbs in its own way, and creates an odd world.  I thought that Godwin plumbed the emotional world of a ten-year-old girl, particularly one who has experienced personal trauma, quite well.  As for Flora, you find out (gradually!) that she is not a one note personality.  There’s a lot more rage behind the quick tears and complacency.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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