It’s 1945 and ten year old Helen Anstruther lives in a dilapidated old house at the top of a rutted driveway in Mountain City, North Carolina. Her mother died when she was three and she’s just lost her beloved grandmother, Nonie, to a heart attack. Her father needs to find someone to stay with Helen while he goes to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to contribute to an important, but mysterious project related to the war. Twenty two year old cousin Flora is recruited to spend the summer looking after Helen.
Helen is a precocious child trying very hard to appear more grown up than her actual years and her behavior elicits mixed emotions. I spent part of the book feeling true sympathy for her and the rest wanting to shake her until her teeth rattled. Her loneliness and confusion engender empathy, while her treatment of Flora is infuriating.
In Flora, Gail Godwin creates what I sometimes think is the trickiest character of all—a genuinely good person. Flora is what another character calls “simple-hearted”. This is not similar to being simple-minded. Flora is likeable without being unbelievable and moral without being preachy. She isn’t perfect. She has her insecurities, like everyone else, but she manages to deal with them without resorting to cynicism, or meanness, or liquor. She was chosen by Helen’s father more out of convenience than anything else, but he couldn’t have found a better companion for Helen if he had tried.
The developing relationship between Helen and Flora is the heart of the story. Where will that relationship lead? The first line of the novel, which is narrated by Helen, contains hints, “There are things we can’t undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.”
This is a story of innocence and its loss, actions and their consequences, memory and forgetting. The themes of this short novel are played out not only in the relationship between Helen and Flora, but in the backdrop of an America doing what is deemed necessary to win a war. The writing is gorgeous and reminded me of one of my favorite short story writers, Alice Munro. Add this to the list of fabulous books published this year by North Carolina writers.