A review of Flora by Gail Godwin

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

by Gail Godwin
Bloomsbury USA
Hardcover: 288 pages, May 7, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-1620401200

This spring, Gail Godwin published her fourteenth novel: Flora. Flora is akin to two of Godwin’s earlier novels, The Finishing School, 1984, and Father Melancholy’s Daughter, 1991), in showing a woman looking back on a pivotal phase of her girlhood, and at her mentors of that time. All three of these novels are compelling and absorbing.  Flora, however, is more pessimistic than the two earlier works, and the central character, Helen, is not very likeable, in spite of Godwin’s use of first person narration. A first person narrator usually wins reader sympathy because the voice is up close and personal, and Helen does, because she is only ten-going-on-eleven, and in grief, but, even so, the superior airs  she has learned from her grandmother, Nonie, are not endearing.

A first person narrator is inherently unreliable, because truth of a situation may lie outside the scope of his or her knowledge or comprehension. At first, one feels that Helen’s knowledge of her family history and stories has given her roots and a strong identity, but as the novel progresses, one realizes that too much dwelling on the past has been harmful to her.

The novel opens in Mountain City, North Carolina, in the spring of 1945, just after Hitler’s suicide in Berlin, but before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The uneasy situation, which ends in devastation, parallels the rising domestic tension in the novel which also ends in tragedy. Helen’s father, Harry Anstruther, the local high school principal, has found a summer job at the secret military establishment at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Who will care for Helen in his absence, with Nonie gone? Though seemingly wise beyond her years, Helen is too young to stay alone in the family mansion on a hillside overlooking the town. (The disrepair of the large house, due to wartime shortages, is a metaphor for the situation of the people living within it.)

Much to Helen’s dismay, her father hires her twenty-two year old first-cousin-once- removed, Flora Waring, a Normal School graduate from Alabama who will start teaching in September. Flora is the younger first cousin of Helen’s late mother. Ever since meeting Flora at Helen’s mother’s funeral when Helen was just three, Nonie has corresponded with Flora, though she has complained that Flora “thinks I’m her diary.” When Flora attends Nonie’s funeral, Harry decides to hire this “looker” as Helen’s caregiver.

Helen recalls Nonie’s disparaging remarks about Flora’s lower class upbringing. Though Flora is unfailingly patient and sweet, and a conscientious caregiver, Helen looks at her with distaste because of her inferiority complex, shabby clothes and tendency to share too much with strangers. Helen considers Flora “simple-minded”, though another character says, “simple-hearted” – pure and guileless.

When two cases of polio break out in town, Harry telephones from Oak Ridge to forbid Helen and Flora to leave the house and property. Their sole contacts with the outside world are the once-a-week cleaning lady, and the grocery delivery man, both of whom become Helen’s friends. Helen and Flora bond to an extent when Helen helps Flora by “playing school” – taking the roles of many students, with Flora as the teacher. Even so, Helen spends much time thinking about the past and forming an unrealistic plan for the future.

Nonie has raised Helen on family stories about her unknown grandfather, Dr. Anstruther, who boarded recovered TB and mental patients in the hilltop mansion until they were ready to return to the world. These characters, whom she has never met, are more interesting to Helen than her own school chums. Nonie has also shared with Helen her own story about running away from home at eighteen; her unpleasant step-brother, Earl Quarles, nine years her senior, inherited the family farm that should have been hers. Flora has brought Nonie’s letters with her, and Helen reads them on the sly. In them, Nonie refers obliquely to several family scandals, including the murder of Flora’s father during a card game. Also, Flora’s family has quarrelled over her beloved African-American housekeeper back in Alabama, who apparently has had a close personal relationship with one of Flora’s relatives, and is half-owner of the house where Flora grew up. Other family stories are mentioned but not expanded upon, such as Harry’s failed elopement at sixteen with one of the “recoverers” at the family mansion. These  stories, if developed fully, would have shown much about the working class/rural American South in the 1930s and ’40s, but because of Godwin’s decision to use first person narration and to focus on Helen, readers must be content with only tantalizing glimpses.

An unreliable first person narrator allows for the same pleasures of deduction that one would find in a who-done-it. In Flora, readers must be like young Helen, sorting out the contents of a drawer, deciding what’s important enough to retain, and what to let go. For instance, in one of Nonie’s letters to Flora, a “quick reply” before she takes Helen to the movies to give Harry a “quiet house”, the grandmother provides a clue which undercuts the official family history. She refers to an unspecified concern of Flora’s that turned out to be a false alarm. She is relieved that Flora had “nothing to worry about”, and adds that she once knew a girl who “was forced” and discovered that she had something to worry about. She “married someone older”; Nonie says she has  “lost touch” with that girl. Young Helen focuses on the part about being taken to the movies and feels badly about having been a nuisance. The “something to worry about” part, however, is key to Harry and Helen’s actual history.

The most appealing character is the delivery man, Finn, a young Irish American returned soldier, discharged for mental health reasons but determined to be re-evaluated and secure an honourable discharge with G.I. benefits. His war traumas have given him insight and he tries to help Helen. He and Flora are both young, kind and understanding, and would be ideal parent-figures if Helen were less arrogant.

Mulling over the past, the grown-up Helen feels a duty to remember Flora and the events of that long-ago summer. “You’re that haunted little girl,” one character tells her, to which she replies, “I suppose I am.” Is a child culpable for its misdeeds, or an innocent blank slate written upon by its elders? After finishing Flora, readers will brood over this question, thereby acknowledging Godwin’s excellence in writing thought provoking novels.

Ruth Latta’s novel with a fourteen year old protagonist, The Songcatcher and Me, (Ottawa, Baico, 2013, $20,) is available from baico@bellnet.ca