Thursday, November 30, 2023

Review: The Secret Book of Flora Lea by Patti Callahan Henry

There's something so enchanting about imagined worlds inhabited in childhood. The Hundred Acre Wood. Calvin and Hobbes. Narnia. Anne Shirley's fanciful stories about the landscape around her. These invented places are a comforting and happy place to be and a safe refuge when the world is too much. Patti Callahan Henry obviously understands the importance and charm of these worlds in her latest novel, The Secret Book of Flora Lea.

1939. Operation Pied Piper. Hazel is 14 and her little sister Flora is 5. Their father has been killed in the war so despite their grieving mother's despair at letting her children leave, she sends them away from London, away from the bombs, to rural England. Hazel and Flora end up being taken in by Bridie Aberdeen, a warm and loving woman who has a son Harry, who is the same age as Hazel. Much of their time in the countryside is idyllic aside from the backdrop of war and missing their mother. When the sisters need to escape even this cozy life with the Aberdeens, Hazel tells Flora their own special, made-up, private fairy tale set in the magical land of Whisperwood to help them cope with the uncertainty in their world.

1960. Years after the war, Hazel is working for Hogan's Rare Book Shoppe in Bloomsbury. It's her last day on the job before moving over to Sotheby's when she finds a manuscript written by American author Peggy Andrews titled Whisperwood and the River of Stars. It is the story she always told little Flora, who went missing, presumed drowned, while they were billeted in the country. But neither she nor Flora ever told anyone else the story so she can't understand how this American author could possibly know it. Impulsively Hazel takes the valuable manuscript when she leaves Hogan's, and sets out on a quest to finally answer what happened to her little sister.

This story is an delightful look at imagination and the power of stories through the lens of the very real Operation Pied Piper and the specter of the "lost children" (those who were evacuated but never returned home) from that time. Hazel is a sympathetic character, trying to live her life but really still stuck back in 1939, feeling guilt and grief over Flora's disappearance. The manuscript is so similar to the story she used to tell her sister that it makes hope bloom in her, pushing her to uncover what happened back then. The book spills over with the enchantment of stories and shines with enduring love for family. Readers will themselves want to be invited into Bridie's welcoming country home and work in the back room of the rare book shop. Hazel seems to be a sweet, intelligent, fairly modern young woman and the reader winces when people around her encourage her to let go of her quest, cheering her at every turn as she continues on regardless. The end was the weakest part of the story as it was telegraphed with flares and predictable, but there were a few welcome twists and turns to get there, which helped make it less frustrating in the end. Obviously this is a WWII book but it's really more about the homefront than it is about the war. The mystery pacing starts off slowly and picks up speed as things start to come together for Hazel and the alternating time line helps to build anticipation. This is a endearing read, especially for those who spent a lot of time in books or other imagined worlds when they were young.

This book is one of the 2023 Women's National Book Association's Great Group Reads.

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