Can the stories we tell ourselves have the power to save us? In “The Secret Book of Flora Lea,” author Patti Callahan Henry brings us a tale within a tale as we meet two sisters, bound by the fantasy world that the elder sister, Hazel, creates and shares with her much younger sister, Flora, during difficult times. Their father is killed the first week he starts training to fight in WWII, and the family is bereft from his loss. When their mother goes to work to do her part in the war effort, Hazel cares for Flora and tells her stories to keep her busy and happy. We especially see the sisters’ bond as they are evacuated from London and parted from their very loving mother, and sent to a small village on the River Thames near Oxford, where they are lucky enough to go live with a wonderful woman and her son.
Hazel and Flora are heartbroken to be away from their mother, but as is clearly depicted, they’ve been luckier than many. Bridie and her son, Harry, are caring people and their home is warm and welcoming. Hazel entertains Flora with stories of Whisperwood, a fantastical place that is entered from secret doorways that lead into its magical world. There the girls can transform into any creature they want to become. The stories keep Flora entertained, and when they roam the nearby woods, the Thames becomes their own “river of stars” from their secret world. Hazel is very protective of their story, and they share it with no one; not even Harry, who has become close to them, and with whom teenage Hazel is forming an attachment. The stories calm Flora and make her feel safe because no one can harm them in their fantasy kingdom.
One day, when Harry and Hazel are distracted for a few minutes, Flora disappears. Although everyone searches far and wide for the six-year-old, she is never found. It is assumed that she fell into the Thames and died. Yet Hazel has never accepted the fact of her sister’s death although her mother has remarried and has another child, a son. Hazel feels overwhelming guilt that it was on her watch that her sister disappeared.
The story is told in several time periods, mostly in the “present” year of 1960, but there are chapters, clearly labeled, that take us back to the time of the evacuation and their time in Binsey, that tiny, insular village in Oxfordshire, in 1939. In 1960, Hazel is working at a shop that sells rare books and manuscripts. She loves her job, and the men who own the shop are almost like family after her 15 years of working there. One day, a package arrives containing a first edition book from America and original artwork. The book is titled Whisperwood, and the story is hers. Or rather, the story that she and her sister shared are detailed in the book’s pages.
How is it possible that someone knows about their secret story? While the story is a bit changed, it’s almost exactly the magical place that Hazel had created for Flora, and only Flora. Is Flora still alive, and did she write this book? The author is reclusive and lives in America. There are no available pictures of her, and the publisher is evasive when Hazel calls to inquire about her.
The rest of the story unfolds in several timelines as we see what led up to Flora’s disappearance and how Hazel, in 1960, is determined to discover who wrote this story that could only have been created by Flora. The quest takes her in several different directions and affects the lives of others in sometimes wonderful ways. During her quest, Hazel must find not only her sister, but herself. She must carefully consider the direction she wants for her own life. What decisions that Hazel made were because of that childhood guilt, and what might she decide now — leaving the quaint Hogan’s book store for the posh Sothebys, marrying Barnaby and fitting into his wealthy snobby family? Or listening to her heart?
The story is not as straightforward as it might seem, and there are plenty of twists to keep us fascinated, reading on and on to find out what really happened to Flora. And we want to know what Hazel will do, how she will decide to live her life. Finishing the book leaves a warm satisfied feeling in your heart. It’s almost as if we, too, had visited Bridie’s cozy cottage and been entertained and fed well at her table. The descriptions of the English countryside make us feel that we’ve been on holiday there, enjoying the beautiful scenery. It’s also a cautionary tale of how little we know what lurks under the facade of those we meet.
This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.