Julie Christine's Reviews > Flora

Flora by Gail Godwin
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it was amazing
bookshelves: war-conflict, usa-historical, historical-fiction, read-2013, best-of-2013

To paraphrase Colm Tóibín, skilled writers explore not the spaces crowded with words and stories, characters and events; they explore the empty spaces, the quiet that most of us seek to fill with the noise of life.

In her gently menacing Flora Gail Godwin creates a character of the empty space. It hovers just beyond the threshold of every doorway at the sprawling One Thousand Sunset Drive and in the dense North Carolina woods that may someday swallow whole the lodge and its remaining inhabitants. It listens in on whispered conversations behind closed doors, it reads letters tucked in the top drawer of a bureau, and it haunts a little girl’s dreams.

In the summer of 1945, deep in the woods of Appalachia, Helen Anstruther is approaching her eleventh birthday. She comes to us by way of her seventy-something self, looking back on that long-ago summer with tenderness and remorse. We know this little girl is about to face something terrible - Godwin’s careful foreshadowing releases a current of dread from its opening pages. But the narrator takes her time, giving us empty spaces to fill with our own coming-of-age memories.

Helen’s world contracts dramatically as school ends for the summer. Her father is called to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to work on a secret military project and leaves her in the care of her young aunt, Flora. We know, of course, what Oak Ridge means and how the summer of 1945 ends, but to Helen, World War II is in the abstract – something that fills radio hours and sermons. Not long after Flora arrives from Alabama, there is a polio outbreak in town. Helen’s father quarantines his daughter and Flora to the lonely lodge on the mountain. Their only relief from each other is the weekly visit by Mrs. Jones, who cleans Astruther Lodge, and by Finn, who delivers for the town grocer. During these “three weeks in June, all of July, and the first six days of August” we quietly explore the head and heart of a lonely little girl.

But the novel’s title is not Helen, it is Flora. And it is Flora's behavior and essence adult Helen attempts to reconcile with her memories and her excavation of the quiet spaces during the summer of 1945 at One Thousand Sunset Drive.

This is not a novel of events, though the few that occur are earthshattering. It is a work of voices- voices from the past, from the grave, from letters and awkward telephone calls, voices from inside. It is the voice of child who is just discovering her own power but has no idea how to restrain it or use it only for good. It is the voice of longing and regret.

It’s the perfect time to read this novel, on the cusp of these long, warm days filled with such promise. Do you remember how it felt to be a child at the start of summer break, long before today’s hyper-programmed “vacations”? Recall that feeling of freedom and possibility, with just a tinge of loneliness and boredom. Now imagine how your world could turn upside-down in just a few short, golden weeks. Allow yourself some empty space.
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Reading Progress

May 2, 2013 – Shelved
May 2, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
June 7, 2013 – Started Reading
June 7, 2013 – Shelved as: war-conflict
June 7, 2013 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
June 7, 2013 – Shelved as: usa-historical
June 9, 2013 –
page 88
31.65% "Oh, this is good. Subtle, masterful... And I adore Helen. Both she and Flora are pitch perfect. A few reviewers have referred to this as a "short" novel. 278 pages is short? (Quantity of the edition I am reading). Seems average to me."
June 10, 2013 –
page 122
43.88% "I appreciate how Godwin gives us Helen's 11 year old voice, even from the vantage point of old age. And she so carefully draws out the tension..."
June 12, 2013 – Shelved as: read-2013
June 12, 2013 – Shelved as: best-of-2013
June 12, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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Julie Christine Excellent read. Review to come.


Gary  the Bookworm Gail Godwin was one of my favorite authors decades ago. Thanks for reminding me why I liked her.


message 3: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Beautiful review!


Julie Christine Thank you, Cheryl! This was a powerful, beautifully written book.

Gary, this is the first of Godwin's novels I've read. Are there favorites you'd recommend?


Gary  the Bookworm Hi Julie,

I really liked A Mother and Two Daughters and A Southern Family. Both were written decades ago but I still remember them for her unsparing analysis of family dysfunction. I think comparing her work to Toibin's is very apt.


Julie Christine Thank you, Gary - I will seek these out.


message 7: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne Nice!


fran One of her best!


Suzanne Julie, I'm about half way and savoring every page. I bought this book because of your beautiful review. Now I'm trying not to read Flora, because I don't want to say good bye.


Julie Christine Suzanne wrote: "Julie, I'm about half way and savoring every page. I bought this book because of your beautiful review. Now I'm trying not to read Flora, because I don't want to say good bye."

I love this, Suzanne! I've done the same- trying not to zoom through a book so I won't come to the end!

Thank you so much for your lovely words.


message 11: by Joan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joan Love your review almost as much as I loved reading Flora! Both beautifully written!


Julie Christine Joan wrote: "Love your review almost as much as I loved reading Flora! Both beautifully written!"

What a lovely thing to say, Joan- thank you!


message 13: by Liz (new) - added it

Liz Smith I read A Mother and Two Daughters more than 30 years ago and loved it. It made me a Godwin Fan. I think anything she has written is worth reading.


Julie Christine Liz wrote: "I read A Mother and Two Daughters more than 30 years ago and loved it. It made me a Godwin Fan. I think anything she has written is worth reading."
I'm woefully behind in reading Godwin! Thanks for the comment and recommendation, Liz.


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