Flora A Novel Gail Godwin
Flora, By Gail Godwin, is a small gem of a book. It is written in first person, narrated by Helen as an adult, who is remembering her 10th summer when her mother's cousin Flora came from Alabama to babysit while her father worked on the Manhattan Project during the end of World War II.
Helen is both wise and angry. She lost her mother to pneumonia when she was three, her beloved grandmother who raised her has just died, and her close friend Brian has come down with polio. On top of that, another friend is moving away.
Helen sees Flora as an interloper and a simpleton. Flora wears her heart on her sleeve and is quick to cry. This enrages Helen who works hard on being in control and planning out what she says and does with the least possible emotion given away. She is very manipulative and often sets Flora up for failure. Since Flora has poor self-esteem, this is not a difficult thing to do.
The book examines this one summer in Helen and Flora's life. They are quarantined to their home, which Helen calls `The Old One Thousand', because of a polio scare in town. Helen's father had polio as a child and doesn't want Flora or Helen leaving their home or inviting others in. `The Old One Thousand' used to be a half-way house for people recovering from TB or psychiatric issues. Helen and her alcoholic father are now its only residents.
I was able to see the parental child in Helen. She often cared for her father who would be disabled by his alcohol intake. Helen had a typical childhood personality of one who needed control in a life filled with dysfunction and chaos.
Despite the warning from Helen's father, Flora and Helen often invite Finn, a war veteran, now delivery-man for the grocer, into their home for dinner. He is an artist and loves to draw their pictures. Occasionally, the minister also makes a visit.
We watch Helen repeatedly plan ways to undermine Flora and make herself look good. Helen is very smart but she lacks much empathy. She is quick to judge and quick to take action on any small affront or disappointment. She has taken to Finn and has a fantasy that Finn will live in one of the `recoverers' old rooms once her father comes home. Finn had a medical discharge from the army both for a collapsed lung and psychiatric reasons. Helen sees him as a perfect `recoverer' for their home.
This supposedly idyllic summer turns to tragedy due to a turn of events initiated by Helen. She looks back with both remorse and understanding of her young self as she lets the reader know what led up to this denouement.
This book, like all of Gail Godwin's writing, is well-written, suspenseful, and a literary page-turner. I was up most of last night finishing it because I could not put it down. Despite it taking place primarily in one house for a short period of time, it feels universal as we all may know people like Flora or Helen and the type of interactions described.