Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Flora by Gail Godwin
The subject of loss is so prevalent in literary fiction, yet Gail Godwin makes it seem fresh and new in Flora: a Novel (Bloomsbury, 2013). We first meet ten year-old Helen in the summer days following the loss of her much beloved paternal grandmother, known as Nonie. World War II is on. Helen's father, a high school principal, will be gone for the summer to do important war work at Oak Ridge. Helen's mother died when she was three, so Nonie has been the girl's maternal mainstay. In comes Flora, a cousin who grew up with Helen's mother. Helen sets her mind and heart against Flora, a sentimental, gullible country girl. Flora is in her early twenties, looking forward to a career in teaching.
Their summer together seems to take place in a bell jar, largely due to an outbreak of polio. Helen's father instructs them to stay home all the time. They even have their groceries delivered. And so, they meet Finn when he makes his way up a rutted road on his motorcycle to their rundown house at the top of a steep hill. Finn had been a soldier, but is awaiting discharge following medical and psychiatric problems. Soon Finn becomes their lifeline, a frequent dinner guest, fixer of drains and voila -- an artist as well. Helen immediately starts having fantasies that Finn will move in with she and her Dad once the summer is over and Flora is well gone. Since Nonie's old house has a history of being a place where those with TB and other problems can recover, Helen feels sure such an arrangement will be perfect.
Flora is the soul of kindness, but Helen only resents her. Helen moves into her grandmother's room and hears her voice in her head, uncannily calling up her grandmother's wisdom as needed. Helen absolutely hates the fact that Flora and Nonie had a long history of correspondence by mail. She sneaks into Flora's room and reads their letters. Flora is also full of tales about Helen's mother. Helen feels so overshadowed by Flora, but does have moments when she gives the woman credit for her bumbling acts of kindness. They even play school together so Flora can practice being a teacher.
Godwin gives us just a hint or two that something will go wrong by summer's end. Something will happen to Flora. And so the author admirably builds an atmosphere of dread and forthcoming doom. Poor Helen looks forward to her 11th birthday, hoping her father will come home for a visit. And that is the point in this enormously affecting novel where I will leave off describing plot details. Truly a masterpiece of characterization, Flora: a Novel will haunt you. Each major and minor character is sharply drawn. Helen has control issues; of course she does. She is trying to reorder her world and make sense of all she has lost. Your heart will ache for her, but you will also want to give her a good talking to. I would go so far as to compare it favorably with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Read it and see if you agree with my comparison!