Flora (Godwin)

Gail Godwin, 2013
288 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781620401200

Ten-year-old Helen and her summer guardian, Flora, are isolated together in Helen's decaying family house while her father is doing secret war work in Oak Ridge during the final months of World War II. At three Helen lost her mother and the beloved grandmother who raised her has just died.

A fiercely imaginative child, Helen is desperate to keep her house intact with all its ghosts and stories. Flora, her late mother's twenty-two-year old first cousin, who cries at the drop of a hat, is ardently determined to do her best for Helen. Their relationship and its fallout, played against a backdrop of a lost America will haunt Helen for the rest of her life.

This darkly beautiful novel about a child and a caretaker in isolation evokes shades of The Turn of the Screw and also harks back to Godwin's memorable novel of growing up, The Finishing School. With its house on top of a mountain and a child who may be a bomb that will one day go off, Flora tells a story of love, regret, and the things we can't undo. It will stay with readers long after the last page is turned. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—June 18, 1937
Where—Birmingham, Alabama, USA
Raised—Ashville, North Carolina
Education—B.A., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill;
   M.A. and Ph.D., University of Iowa, Writers' Workshop
Currently—lives in Woodstock, New York

Gail Kathleen Godwin, an American novelist and short story writer, has published one non-fiction work, two collections of short stories, and eleven novels, three of which have been nominated for the National Book Award and five of which have made the New York Times Bestseller List.

Personal life
Godwin was born in Birmingham, Alabama but raised in Asheville, North Carolina by her divorced mother and grandmother. She attended Peace College in Raleigh, North Carolina (a women's college founded by Presbyterians in 1857) from 1955 to 1957, but graduated with a B.A. in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1959. She worked briefly as a reporter for the Miami Herald and married a Herald photographer named Douglas Kennedy. After the job and the marriage finished (by firing and by divorce, respectively), she worked as waitress back home in North Carolina to save money to travel to Europe.

In the early 1960s, Godwin worked for the U.S. Travel Service at the U.S. Embassy in London and wrote novels and short stories in her spare time. She returned to the United States and worked briefly as an editorial assistant at the Saturday Evening Post before attending the University of Iowa, earning her M.A. (1968) from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and PhD (1971) in English Literature.

Godwin's body of work has garnered many honors, including three National Book Award nominations, a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts grants for both fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Five of her novels have been on the New York Times best seller list.

Godwin lives and writes in Woodstock, New York. Her family includes her half-brother Rebel A. Cole and half-sister Franchelle Millender.

Godwin’s eighteen books have established her as a leading voice in American literature along several currents. Her first few novels, published in the early 1970s, explored the worlds of women negotiating restrictive roles. The Odd Woman (1974) was a National Book Award finalist, as was her fourth novel, Violet Clay (1978), in which she modernized the Gothic novel and explored such themes as villainy and suicide.

A Mother and Two Daughters (1982) marked a turning point in Godwin’s career. It encompassed a community, Mountain City, based on her hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, and carried out her empathetic method of entering many characters’ minds within a fluid narrative. Voted a National Book Award finalist, it also became Godwin’s first best-seller. Between it and her next four best-sellers, Godwin interposed Mr. Bedford and the Muses (1983), her second short story collection after Dream Children (1976).

Dream Children had been Godwin’s offering, with some additions, of work she’d created at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, studying with advisors Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Coover. It exhibits her early interest in allegory made real on a psychological level. The Iowa years come alive in her edited journals, The Making of a Writer, Journals, 1963-1969 (2010). A previous volume, The Making of a Writer, Journals, 1961-1963 (2006), presents her years in Europe after a do-or-die decision to become a writer. The novella, “Mr. Bedford,” which leads her second story collection, derives from her time in London. Narrated in the first person, it achieves the author’s quest for timelessness through a look into a living room window.

“Last night I dreamed of Ursula DeVane,” begins Godwin’s sixth novel, The Finishing School (1984), again employing a first person reverie, and turning it toward one of Godwin’s fertile interests, the effect of a powerful personality on a developing one. The suspense that tragically ensues relates to her next novel, A Southern Family, which returns to Mountain City, but is darker than A Mother and Two Daughters, as it involves a murder-suicide that sends shock waves and melancholy through a family. All of Godwin’s second three novels were published additionally as mass market paperbacks.

Father Melancholy’s Daughter (1991), also a best-seller, represented Godwin’s independence from the best-seller niche being marketed for her. The daughter of the title navigates her relationships with her father, an Episcopal minister; and with a classic Godwin character, a bewitching theatrical auteur. Theology, and its non-doctrinal meaning in spiritual life, became one of the areas in which Godwin began to act as a leading explorer. The subject is embraced in Evensong, her 1999 sequel to Father Melancholy’s Daughter; and in her 2010 novel, Unfinished Desires. It also informs her non-fiction book, Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life (2001), illustrated by stories from her life and from her constant reading.

Godwin ninth novel, The Good Husband (1994), makes use of a form she’d emulated as a 24-year-old in Europe, Lawrence Durrell’s quartet (as in The Alexandria Quartet), by which a story is told through four related characters. Godwin’s new direction—not just in form, but also in choice of characters—did not reach the best-seller list. Evensong, her tenth novel, did; and then she engaged in another literary experiment, "Evenings at Five" (2003), a novella that explores, through a distinctive kind of stream-of-consciousness, the presence that follows the death of a long-term companion. It is based on her relationship with composer Robert Starer, with whom she collaborated on nine libretti. Regarding Evenings at Five, Godwin said she wanted “to write a different kind of ghost story.” The trade paperback edition of the book, with Godwin’s autobiographical “Christina Stories” added, became one of eight works of her fiction published as Ballantine Readers Circle trade paperbacks, with interviews and reader’s guides.

For her twelfth novel, Queen of the Underworld, Godwin fashioned a Bildungsroman, derived from her years as a Miami Herald reporter, 1959-60. Her experience included close familiarity with the Cuban emigre community, with whom, at times, she conversed in Spanish.

Unfinished Desires (2010) exemplified her empathetic method by inhabiting the minds and enunciating the voices of more than a dozen full characters. Set at a girls’ school run by nuns, it makes the connection between religious devotion and artistic seriousness. The novel openly reveals girls in adolescence, as well as their elders, who bequeath them their deep-set issues. Suspense comes from multi-punch power plays, as well as from characters’ struggles to be good. The novel’s original title, "The Red Nun," refers to the statue of a tragic novitiate, whose story becomes the subject of a school play, which in turns becomes an arena for acting out. The play’s the thing, dramatically, metaphorically, and psychologically. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 7/2/2010.)

Book Reviews
Witty and moving.... The incidents of this plot are daringly few: A boring summer during which nothing happens is a challenge most novelists should avoid. Godwin, though, has the psychological sensitivity to make these still, humid days seem fraught with impending consequence.... The success of this trim novel rests entirely on Godwin's ability to maintain the various chords of Helen's voice, which are by degrees witty, superior, naive and rueful.... Her recollection of that tragic summer, turned over and over in her mind for years, is something between a search for understanding and a mournful confession. But finally it's a testament to the power of storytelling to bring solace when none other is possible.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

Flora is Godwin at her best, a compelling story about Helen’s growth of consciousness told with fearless candor and the poignant wisdom of hindsight.
Boston Globe

Flora is a tightly focused, painful and eventually eruptive novel. Its ruminative, sometimes regretful narrator explores the complex heart of a child, showing us that it's not inevitably a sweet, gooey thing. It can be, as well, a shuddering volcanic island with but a single haunted inhabitant.
Christian Science Monitor

On the surface, Gail Godwin’s luminous Flora is a quiet, simple novel about a few weeks spent in near isolation in the North Carolina mountains in the summer of 1945. Under the surface, however, run currents connecting the lives of the two main characters to those of dozens of others, present and especially past.
Columbus Dispatch

Gail Godwin’s Flora sneaks up on you. The premise is small, but ambitiously so in the 'small, square, two inches of ivory' sense that Jane Austen used to describe her novelistic palette . . . . [Godwin]draws out the haunting Big Questions — loss, regret, family bonds — as the novel progresses, and then she leaves them, smartly and humbly, for the reader to answer.
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Remorse may be the defining emotion for our narrator, Helen, but Godwin the writer has nothing to regret: Flora is an elegant little creeper of a story.
Maureen Corrigan - NPR's Fresh Air

In a coming-of-age novel as exquisitely layered and metaphorical as a good peom, Godwin explores the long-term fallout from abandonment and betrayal, the persistence of remorse and the possibility of redemption
MORE magazine

Narrator Helen Anstruther, “going on eleven,” is the relentlessly charismatic and wry star of this stirring and wondrous novel from Godwin.... When her father leaves to do “secret work for World War II” in neighboring Tennessee... [Fora] is left in the care of 22-year-old...relative.... Godwin’s thoughtful portrayal of their boredom, desires, and the eventual heartbreak of their summer underscores the impossible position of children, who are powerless against the world and yet inherit responsibility for its agonies.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) A superbly crafted, stunning novel by three-time National Book Award award finalist Godwin (A Mother and Two Daughters), this is an unforgettable, heartbreaking tale of disappointment, love, and tragedy. Highly recommended.
Library Journal

Godwin, celebrated for her literary finesse, presents a classic southern tale galvanic with decorous yet stabbing sarcasm and jolting tragedy.... Godwin’s under-your-skin characters are perfectly realized, and the held-breath plot is consummately choreographed. But the wonder of this incisive novel of the endless repercussions of loss and remorse at the dawn of the atomic age is how subtly Godwin laces it with exquisite insights into secret family traumas, unspoken sexuality, class and racial divides, and the fallout of war while unveiling the incubating mind of a future writer.

In the summer of 1945, 10-year-old Helen....needs someone to stay with her while [her father] does "more secret work for World War II" in Oak Ridge, Tenn. So he asks her mother's 22-year-old cousin, Flora,...[who] seems like a dumb hick to snobbish little Helen...a thoroughly unappealing narrator. But as Godwin skillfully peels back layers of family history...we see that Helen is mean because she's terrified.... Unsparing yet compassionate; a fine addition to Godwin's long list of first-rate fiction bringing 19th-century richness of detail and characterization to the ambiguities of modern life.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Flora begins, “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.” (1) What “regrettable acts” is Helen referring to? How does she try to make her remorse “constructive” and “of service to life,” in telling the story of her summer with Flora?

2. When Flora begins, Honora “Nonie” Anstruther is already dead, yet we get to know her intimately throughout the novel. In what ways do we become acquainted with Nonie’s voice? What aspects of Nonie’s personality are revealed through her loved ones’ memories?

3. Consider the descriptions of Old One Thousand, the Anstruther estate where Helen grows up. How does the house feel haunted by its former occupants, including the Recoverers, Honora, and Lisbeth? What elements of decay contribute to the estate’s creepy and isolated feel?

4. Consider Helen’s inheritances from her various family members. In what ways does she resemble her grandmother, her father, her mother, and even her cousin Flora? What personality traits, positive and negative, does she owe to each of these forebears?

5. Consider the few details Helen reveals about her adult life as she recalls the summer of 1945. If she has written “a collection of stories about failed loves,” what might her personal life be like? (121) What might have caused her “breakdown and lengthy stay in
an expensive institution,” (276) and how has writing helped Helen reconnect with her past?

6. Finn disagrees with Helen’s low opinion of Flora; he says, “I think you are confusing simpleminded and simple-hearted.” (255) What does Finn mean by “simple-hearted?” Does this capture Flora more accurately than Helen’s youthful opinion of her? Why or why not?

7. “You’ve had such a strange childhood,” Flora tells Helen. (77) Why does Flora’s observation upset Helen? In what ways has her childhood been “strange,” and why might young Helen not recognize its oddness?

8. Discuss the hints of the supernatural in Flora. What might explain the voice Helen hears while sitting in Nonie’s car and walking down the driveway? What does Mrs. Jones’s intimate relationship with her daughter, Rosemary, suggest about the enduring relationship between the dead and living?

9. Helen reflects on her game of “fifth grade” with Flora, “We were making up a game that needed both of us . . . But right here, right in here somewhere, in what we were making together, is located the redemption, if there is to be any.” (141) Discuss the ways that Helen and Flora collaborate when they play “fifth grade.” What does Helen learn from Flora while they play, despite her assumption that she controls the game completely?

10. Honora writes to Flora in a 1944 letter, “‘Spoken word is slave; unspoken is master,’ as the old adage goes.” (162) Why does Honora believe in the value of silence over speech? How has Helen inherited Honora’s opinions about the spoken and unspoken? How does the novel itself tiptoe the line between secrecy and revelation?

11. Two past scandals are revealed in Flora: Harry’s teenage affair with a Recoverer named Willow Fanning, and the identity of Harry’s true father, Earl Quarles. How has the Anstruther family kept these two events under wraps? How does the novel eventually reveal each of these secrets?

12. Discuss the love triangle of Helen, Finn, and Flora. How does Helen become so emotionally invested in Finn? What fantasies overtake her when she thinks about him? What is the basis of the attraction between Finn and Flora? How does each react to Helen’s jealousy and rage?

13. Helen concludes about Flora, “I thought I knew all there was to know about her, but she has since become one of my profoundest teachers, thought she never got to stand in front of a real class and teach.” (273) What lessons about life, love, and generosity does Helen learn from Flora? How does Helen react to Flora’s birthday gift of Honora’s letters—uncensored, so Helen can “grow into them” ? (272)

14. In the novel, the manufacture of atomic weaponry at Oak Ridge is called the “best kept secret in the history of the world.” (227) Discuss the relationship between family secrets and war secrets in the novel. How does the secret history of World War II intersect with the Anstruthers’ secrets?

15. The day after Flora’s death and the atomic explosion in Hiroshima, Harry and Finn both appear in the paper, “grouped beneath the caption LOCAL HEROES.” (265) What are the ironies of Harry and Finn’s supposed heroism? What are the consequences of their “heroic” efforts in the war and at home?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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