In “Flora,’’ her 14th novel, Gail Godwin returns to the nuances of Southern Catholic girlhood in the mid-1900s. Encompassing eight summer weeks during which 10-year-old Helen Anstruther precipitously grows up, the novel, narrated by the adult Helen, now a successful novelist, is both a traditional examination of conscience and an idiosyncratic künstlerroman.
Helen’s father, Harry, invites second cousin Flora to North Carolina to look after his daughter while he works on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Precocious Helen dreads her 22-year-old cousin’s arrival. “Embarrassingly ready to spill her shortcomings, she was the first older person I felt superior to. This had its gratifying moments but also its worrisome side . . . . She was an instant crier. My grandmother Nonie, that mistress of layered language, had often remarked that Flora possessed ‘the gift of tears.’ As far as I could tell, layers had been left out of Flora.”
Helen, who lost her mother when she was 3 and her devoted grandmother, Nonie, as the story opens in the spring of 1945, has learned to thrive in the house once know as Anstruther’s Lodge, a sanatorium for “Recoverers,” people coping with the aftermath of TB, nervous breakdown, or alcoholism. Legends of the Recoverers, gone long before her birth, are as vivid in Helen’s imagination as gossip from sharp-tongued pal Annie Rickets and best friend Brian Beale. Her fantasy world is shattered by cheerful, practical Flora, whom Helen dismisses as a rube from Backwater, Ala.
Godwin confronts the racism and snobbery of the period and deftly evokes the texture of domestic life shaped by food rationing, serialized radio dramas, news reports, or hearsay about the war and phone conversations connected by live — and often eavesdropping — operators.
The polio scare becomes tangible when beloved Brian is struck down. A polio survivor himself, Harry Anstruther orders Flora to quarantine Helen, putting further strain on the mismatched cousins. “I was beginning to see how the whole summer was going to be. Meals and Flora. Flora and meals. We couldn’t go anywhere and nobody could come to us.” Later Helen reflects, “Most days my feelings fell somewhere on the scale between bored/protected and bored/superior. But there were also times when I felt I had to keep from losing the little I had been left with, including my sense of myself.”
Then they are blessed by the apparition of enchanting Devlin Patrick Finn, wounded veteran turned grocery deliverer who appears with milk and chipped beef and Helen’s favorite Clark bars. More importantly, the voluble, witty, sweet young man becomes a steady caller as his visits extend to driving lessons, home repair, and dinner company, exciting romantic fantasies in each cousin.
Helen is appealing in her intelligence, curiosity, and ambition, but she wildly overestimates her maturity. Damaged by a long family history of abandonment, the recent death of Nonie, and the mercurial behavior of her alcoholic father, Helen lacks compassion and accountability. She ignores Brian in the hospital. When Annie reports her family is moving in three weeks, Helen never phones back. She has no clue Flora and Finn are fast falling in love. After all, she’s already imagined him moving into the lodge and waiting for her to grow up.
Helen counts on Harry’s arrival for her 11th birthday on Aug. 7, eager to introduce him to her darling Finn. On the eve of her birthday, the fantasy is destroyed when she returns downstairs from a sulk looking for Flora and Finn. “They were not dancing to the music as I had permitted them to do in my thoughts, and they were not on the sofa where I had left them . . . I crossed the carpeted dining room and was about to enter the kitchen when a muffled sound made me stealthy. Flora and Finn were locked in an embrace . . . I fled, stopping briefly by the coffee table long enough to pour the glass of milk over the two portraits of Flora.”
Finn finds her in a secret place they explored together on a happier day. Helen can’t help herself, saying, “Flora’s simpleminded, you must have realized that by now.”
“I think you are confusing simpleminded with simple-hearted. . . . When there’s no deceit or malice in your heart . . . That’s why Flora is so rare, it’s just her heart she offers, with none of the sludge to wade through.”
“ ‘You sound like you love her,’ I remarked scornfully, but his answer, if he gave one, was drowned out by a shriek of braking tires, headlamps dancing crazily toward us.”
Godwin’s novel shifts from lively dialogue to young Helen’s complex internal monologue to deft dramatization of that eventful/uneventful summer, all mediated by the adult Helen’s measured, melancholy reflections. “I now say alongside Thomas à Kempis: ‘I would far rather feel remorse than know how to define it.’ ”
In one of these spiritual inventories, older Helen, whose books include a story collection about failed loves, looks back ruefully, “I thought I knew everything there was to know about her, but she has since become a profound study for me, more intensely so in recent years. Styles have come and gone in storytelling, psychologizing, theologizing, but Flora keeps providing me with something as enigmatic as it is basic to life, as timeless as it is fresh.”
“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.
Valerie Miner’s new novel, “Traveling with Spirits,’’ will be released in September. She teaches at Stanford University and her website is www.valerieminer.com.