My rating: 5 of 5 stars
To paraphrase Colm Tóibín, skilled writers explore not the spaces crowded with words and stories, characters and events; they explore the empty spaces, the quiet that most of us seek to fill with the noise of life.
In her gently menacing Flora Gail Godwin creates a character of the empty space. It hovers just beyond the threshold of every doorway at the sprawling One Thousand Sunset Drive and in the dense North Carolina woods that may someday swallow whole the lodge and its remaining inhabitants. It listens in on whispered conversations behind closed doors, it reads letters tucked in the top drawer of a bureau, and it haunts a little girl’s dreams.
In the summer of 1945, deep in the woods of Appalachia, Helen Anstruther is approaching her eleventh birthday. She comes to us by way of her seventy-something self, looking back on that long-ago summer with tenderness and remorse. We know this little girl is about to face something terrible – Godwin’s careful foreshadowing releases a current of dread from its opening pages. But the narrator takes her time, giving us empty spaces to fill with our own coming-of-age memories.
Helen’s world contracts dramatically as school ends for the summer. Her father is called to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to work on a secret military project and leaves her in the care of her young aunt, Flora. We know, of course, what Oak Ridge means and how the summer of 1945 ends, but to Helen, World War II is in the abstract – something that fills radio hours and sermons. Not long after Flora arrives from Alabama, there is a polio outbreak in town. Helen’s father quarantines his daughter and Flora to the lonely lodge on the mountain. Their only relief from each other is the weekly visit by Mrs. Jones, who cleans Astruther Lodge, and by Finn, who delivers for the town grocer. During these “three weeks in June, all of July, and the first six days of August” we quietly explore the head and heart of a lonely little girl.
But the novel’s title is not Helen, it is Flora. And it is Flora’s behavior and essence adult Helen attempts to reconcile with her memories and her excavation of the quiet spaces during the summer of 1945 at One Thousand Sunset Drive.
This is not a novel of events, though the few that occur are earth shattering. It is a work of voices- voices from the past, from the grave, from letters and awkward telephone calls, voices from inside. It is the voice of child who is just discovering her own power but has no idea how to restrain it or use it only for good. It is the voice of longing and regret.
It’s the perfect time to read this novel, on the cusp of these long, warm days filled with such promise. Do you remember how it felt to be a child at the start of summer break, long before today’s hyper-programmed “vacations”? Recall that feeling of freedom and possibility, with just a tinge of loneliness and boredom. Now imagine how your world could turn upside-down in just a few short, golden weeks. Allow yourself some empty space.