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The Secret Book of Flora Lea
Table of Contents
About The Book
When a woman discovers a rare book that has connections to her past, long-held secrets about her missing sister and their childhood spent in the English countryside during World War II are revealed.
In the war-torn London of 1939, fourteen-year-old Hazel and five-year-old Flora are evacuated to a rural village to escape the horrors of the Second World War. Living with the kind Bridie Aberdeen and her teenage son, Harry, in a charming stone cottage along the River Thames, Hazel fills their days with walks and games to distract her young sister, including one that she creates for her sister and her sister alone—a fairy tale about a magical land, a secret place they can escape to that is all their own.
But the unthinkable happens when young Flora suddenly vanishes while playing near the banks of the river. Shattered, Hazel blames herself for her sister’s disappearance, and she carries that guilt into adulthood as a private burden she feels she deserves.
Twenty years later, Hazel is in London, ready to move on from her job at a cozy rare bookstore to a career at Sotheby’s. With a charming boyfriend and her elegantly timeworn Bloomsbury flat, Hazel’s future seems determined. But her tidy life is turned upside down when she unwraps a package containing an illustrated book called Whisperwood and the River of Stars. Hazel never told a soul about the imaginary world she created just for Flora. Could this book hold the secrets to Flora’s disappearance? Could it be a sign that her beloved sister is still alive after all these years?
As Hazel embarks on a feverish quest, revisiting long-dormant relationships and bravely opening wounds from her past, her career and future hang in the balance. An astonishing twist ultimately reveals the truth in this transporting and refreshingly original novel about the bond between sisters, the complications of conflicted love, and the enduring magic of storytelling.
Not very long ago and not very far away, there once was and still is an invisible place right here with us. And if you are born knowing, you will find your way through the woodlands to the shimmering doors that lead to the land made just and exactly for you.
HAZEL MERSEY LINDEN, 1939
On a red blanket by the river, six-year-old Flora Lea Linden awakens alone, a dome of blue sky above her and birdsong wild about her. Someone called my name? She glances around the green expanse, at the churning water of the River Thames furrowed with winks and puckers as it nearly overflows its banks, taking to the sea anything or anyone who dares to enter its rush.
The river surges toward Oxford where students hurry to and from tutors under pinnacled towers standing guard over cobblestone streets. Then the waters bend and curve, gathering force, bouncing against the stone walls and locks of England until they reach London, where bombs are plummeting to city streets, delivering ruination, where smoldering cathedrals and crushed homes litter the river with their ember and ash.
Did someone call my name? Flora sits and rubs her eyes. She’s not exactly alone. She has Berry, her stuffed teddy. And she isn’t frightened. Why should she be? Her older sister, Hazel, told her many times that these woodlands belong to them, that the shadowed glade and the sacred sunlit puddles where the canopy of trees opens wide is a safe place meant for the two sisters, created just for them.
She stands and carefully steps closer to the river. Hazel refuses to go with Flora to Whisperwood anymore, so what’s she to do but go alone? It’s hers!—not to be abandoned: the glowing castle and the grove of alder, the chattering squirrels and animated trees.
Hazel had told Flora that the glinting lights on the river were stars and galaxies, rushing to meet the sea. Hazel had ordered her not to ever become the river, as they became other woodland creatures, nor should Flora ever drink from the river. If she did, she was told, she would never find her way back to Mum or Bridie or their warm cottage in the heather-strewn fields.
This enchanting river was—like the apple in the Bible—forbidden.
But Flora doesn’t believe this beautiful, starry river can be dangerous. She clings to Berry by his worn, furry paw and ventures nearer to the water’s rush, thrilled at her boldness. No one knows what might happen to her on this adventure or who she might become.
She hears a voice nearby in the woods, familiar, but Flora ignores it.
The way here was through a shimmering door, and Hazel was too busy to see it. The river is Flora’s companion, her friend, and this intimacy has her creeping ever closer to its edge.
Hazel never wants them to pretend to be bunnies, so that’s what she’s decided today. Flora will be a bunny.
She stares down at the river’s churned-up waters, looking for stars but seeing only mud and silt, humps of river-smoothed rocks underwater. She skids down on a soggy, earthy incline, her wellies slipping where the browned grasses of October change to mud. Falling on her bum, Flora laughs.
What an adventure!
Berry slips from her hand as her palms and fingers dig into the wet earth to keep herself from tumbling into the frigid waters. She scoots closer, wanting to grab Berry. He’s too close to the river.
“It’s okay,” she says as she reaches for his paw, repeating her sister’s words: “It’s our land. We’re always safe in Whisperwood.”
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for The Secret Book of Flora Lea includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Patti Callahan Henry. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When a woman discovers a rare book that has connections to her past, long-held secrets about her missing sister and their childhood spent in the English countryside during World War II are revealed.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1.Hazel and Flora Lea’s childhood experience was inspired by Operation Pied Piper—a real life event in British WWII history in which over three million children were evacuated from their homes to live with volunteer families throughout the English countryside. Were you familiar with this piece of history prior to reading the novel?
2. Hazel takes great care of the rare books while employed at Hogan’s Bookshop, wearing white gloves and logging items meticulously. In passing, the owner, Edwin, has mentioned the enormous value original illustrations can add to a book. What is revealed about Hazel’s character in the decision to take the copy of Whisperwood and the River of Stars along with the illustrations? What about when her initial denial of taking them is factored in?
3. When Hazel makes the phone call to Peggy Andrews seeking information about the book, she gets an unexpected answer about the origin of Whisperwood and the River of Stars. What does this broadly say about the creation of storytelling and mythmaking? Can someone ever own a story?
4. Bridie Aberdeen, as a character, is presented as extremely warm and nurturing yet with some eccentricities. The town gossips about her practices and the “mysterious” disappearance of Henry’s father. What was your first impression of Bridie? Did that change at any point during the book?
5. Hazel and Flora’s mother had several opportunities to take her daughters back to London but ultimately made the decision that they were safer and better served in Binsey with Bridie and Henry. Do you have a positive or negative opinion of their mother? Would you have made a different choice?
6. Only through an honest conversation years after the fact do Hazel and Henry discover their shared guilt over what happened to Flora. Would that silence have lasted as long if Hazel and Henry were older when Flora first disappeared?
7. Barnaby is supportive of Hazel’s desire to reach out to Peggy Andrews and even encourages her to get in touch with Dorothy Bellamy, thinking a reporter may be able to help, yet he eventually struggles with Hazel’s never-ending quest and its effect on their relationship. Does Barnaby’s ultimatum change your view of the character? Did Hazel take her quest too far?
8. How did you feel about the reveal of Dorothy Bellamy’s past? Did Dorothy’s Aunt Imogene have justification in her decision to remove the child the way she did?
9. How do the specific time periods—World War II and 1960—affect the way in which the case of Flora’s disappearance was handled? Would the outcome have been different if set in present day?
10. At the end of the story, Dorothy (Dot) is coming to terms with two versions of herself. What are the broader implications of childhood memory? Why do we so clearly remember some things and not others, regardless of importance? Can you think of your earliest childhood memory?
11. Hazel’s character displays many different emotions in the decision making throughout her life—hope, fear, guilt, love. Which one do you think is the dominant driver? Would it be the same if you were in her shoes?
12. The Secret Book of Flora Lea weaves an ode to stories and, ultimately, how we carry them with us throughout our lives. Is storytelling a universal way for humans to connect? How has storytelling affected your life?
Enhance Your Book Club
1.Seek out a map of England and chart the train journey of Hazel and Flora from London to the real-life village of Binsey in Oxfordshire.
2. Enjoy a tea service: a selection of English breakfast, Earl Grey, or green tea with sugar and milk options on the side. Add it some tea biscuits or scones with butter and jam as a food option.
3. As children, Hazel and Flora become enraptured with the story of Whisperwood. In the spirit of the novel, share a memorable book or story from your childhood.
4. Learn what else Patti is up to online at PattiCallahanHenry.com
A Conversation with Patti Callahan Henry
Q: You speak in the author’s note about your discovery of Operation Pied Piper—a piece of history lost to time for many people. Were there other bits of history you discovered in your research for this novel?
A: Before I started writing this novel, I knew that British children had been sent to the country during World War II for their safety, but I’d been unaware of its operational name. As I dug a little deeper, curious about the impact of exile on the children of war, I discovered that this scheme had been given the title of a German legend about a piper who lures children away from their homes and town. Those children were never seen again. As I read and conducted my research, I wondered this: Why would the British government name a scheme to keep children safe after a legend of lost children? Curiosity often leads me to story, and this time was no different. Children weren’t just sent to the country—they were also sent to America, Australia, and Canada by ship (sometimes with fatal results). WWII is full of untold stories, and in The Secret Book of Flora Lea I try to bring some of the Operation Pied Piper tales to light—from the small facts about how children sat in town halls while hearing the ringing voices of “I choose this one” to the larger narrative of bombings and exile. I wanted to know about the children’s experiences of this time, and Hazel and Flora Lea were the ones to tell it.
Q: You’ve written both contemporary and historical fiction novels. What do you enjoy most about writing historical fiction?
A: The thing I love most about historical fiction is the thing that thrills me about any research, which is finding the one small fact that gives me pause, that causes a tingle at the back of the neck, that tells me there is something more to the story. I love finding a line or an event or a lost voice that changes what I think I know about a story, that flips the known narrative on its head, and that brings me to new understanding of a time, a person, or an event. I once heard this phenomenon described as “emancipating the truth” and I think about that phrase over and over as I do my research: How can I bring a fuller or more interesting truth to this story?
Q: The Secret Book of Flora Lea is set in dual time periods and places—the World War II English countryside and 1960s London. Did you know from the start that those would be the settings for this book?
A: I only knew a few things when I sat down to write this novel: that the story would be impacted by Operation Pied Piper, that there would be two sisters who loved each other dearly, and that the older sister would create a fairy-tale world for just the two of them when they are sent away from home. The rest of the novel grew from those seeds. As I made my way into the story and placed it in the landscapes I love (London, Oxford, Binsey, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts) the settings and time fell into place. 1939 is the year of Operation Pied Piper and 1960s London is a fascinating period in history, and I wanted both the city and Hazel to be on the cusp of great change.
Q: This book is a real ode to storytelling and how we can carry it with us for years. Are there particular books or stories from your childhood that you carry along as an adult?
A: The everlasting refrain from my childhood was this: “Get your nose out of that book and join us.” I loved books, the library, stories, and other worlds. I believe we are made from bits and pieces that stick to us, and for me, a lot of those bits are made of books I read. If I’m to choose the most influential from childhood they would be The Chronicles of Narnia, the Little House on the Prairie series, Nancy Drew, Old Yeller, and Little Women. It’s an odd combination of influence, but somehow, they all seem to define my childhood reading in a time capsule.
Q: What are some of your favorite places or things to pull from for inspiration when writing a novel?
A: Inspiration is mysterious, elusive, and refuses to be looked at directly in the eye. I try not to pin it down for fear that it will never visit me again! But I do know that inspiration comes when I stay curious. I often write about the origins of stories, and as you’ll read in The Secret Book of Flora Lea, there is the overarching question of “Where did Whisperwood come from? What are its origins?” If I notice something, or my curiosity is peeked, there is usually a story hidden inside that framework. My work is inspired by poetry (as evidenced by the Mary Oliver poem at the start of this novel), by nature, and by reading, conversations, and dreams. In other words, my work is inspired by anything and everything that gives me a little tingle of wonder. When I pay attention, the world offers me small and large moments of inspiration. When I traveled to England for research, I had so many moments of synchronicity around the characters and setting that’s it is entirely possible for me to believe that the story was working with me to appear in the world as a novel. Now, that is inspiring.
Q: The relationship of Hazel and Flora weaves a beautiful thread about sisterhood. Were there certain elements of sisters you felt were essential to this story?
A: Sisterhood is complicated—I know; I am the oldest of three—and I wanted to show the tug and pull of both loving closeness and the need for independence that is often inherent in sibling relationships. While Hazel loves and feels responsible for her little sister, as she creates a fairy-tale land for just the two of them, but as she shares a bed in the small cottage, she also yearns for something of her own. This dissonance leads to what she believes is a terrible mistake, and her sister disappears, preserving Flora Lea as a six-year-old in Hazel’s mind instead of the woman she might have become. I wanted to explore all those facets of being an older sister: the reality versus the fantasy, the imagining versus the reality, and the guilt that follows Hazel into adulthood, keeping her from her true aspirations until she knows the truth.
Q: You’re a founding member of Friends and Fiction with authors Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, and Kristy Woodson Harvey. How has being a part of that group informed your path as a writer?
A: We founded Friends and Fiction during the pandemic when all our book tours had been cancelled. We were worried about how to reach our readers, ones we wouldn’t see on tour. We were lonely and locked down, and we were concerned about bookstores. This led to a Zoom gathering where we talked, brainstormed, laughed, and shared our lives and work. It was Mary Kay Andrews who said, “Let’s take this conversation live on Facebook.” And that was the beginning of an unintended and extraordinary journey, and the seed of one of the most vibrant communities on the internet and now in the real world: a reading community of well over a hundred thousand members on Facebook, a show on YouTube, a podcast, a book club, and now live events. With weekly author interviews, this show and community has changed our lives. We are part of something so much bigger than ourselves, and we know how important it is for writers, readers, librarians, booksellers, and published authors. As for how it has informed my path as a writer? I know that my writing life isn’t just about my story or my work, but instead it is an integral part of a thriving literary community.
Q: What inspired you to write a novel centered around a bookstore? In what ways did this aspect of the narrative contribute to how the story unfolded?
A: I knew that a book of illustrated fairy tales solves the mystery of Flora Lea’s disappearance. I didn’t know what those answers would be, but I knew they’d be exposed by this book’s existence. So what better place for Hazel to find this book than in the very bookstore where she works? I am also fascinated by the idea of a “shadow artist”—meaning someone who works adjacent to the work they want to do but area somehow blocked from doing. Hazel wants to write stories again. She hoards notebooks and works in a bookshop, but she also believes that the story she created took her sister. I wanted her to heal from that guilt. And then on a personal note, bookstores and libraries have been, as for most of us, sanctuaries. This novel is partly an ode to stories and bookstores, to their power and their importance, and so I created a bookstore I’d want to work in, one that you, the reader, would want to visit.
- Publisher: Atria Books (May 2, 2023)
- Length: 368 pages
- ISBN13: 9781668011836
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Raves and Reviews
"A world war and a fairy tale collide in the British countryside in 1940--and Patti Callahan Henry is the perfect novelist to explore how the living are forever changed. The Secret Book of Flora Lea is a treasure: moving, surprising, and deeply evocative of an England that everyday walked the tightrope between heartbreak and hope. --Chris Bohjalian, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Lioness and The Flight Attendant
"Deft, lyrical and supremely satisfying, The Secret Book of Flora Lea isn’t so much a departure for Patti Callahan Henry as it is a culmination of her gifts as a novelist. This is a book about difficult history and unsinkable hope, ordinary magic in the form of love, and about how our stories can save and sustain us in the most trying moments of our lives. Callahan’s plot will keep you guessing even as her characters steal your heart. I loved it." --Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife and When the Stars Go Dark
"A spellbinding tale of hope and perseverance, The Secret Book of Flora Lea is as enchanting and whimsical as the Whisperwood fairytale hidden within its pages. It reminds us that a happily-ever-after isn't out of reach—so long as we heed the tiny voice within, whispering that the real magic of the story may be closer than we think." —Sarah Penner, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost Apothecary and The London Seance Society
"Two sisters, dual time periods, a magical secret place, an abiding mystery--The Secret Book of Flora Lea is an enchanting story of survival against all odds. With her trademark warmth and a feather-light touch, Patti Callahan Henry weaves together events both real and imagined. Transporting, heartfelt, and atmospheric." --Christina Baker Kline, New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train and The Exiles
The Secret Book of Flora Lea is a beguiling blend of hope, mystery, and true familial love. It exposes the deep wounds of a family tragically separated because of war. Told in an utterly fresh way with dual timelines and a host of unforgettable characters, this is a story that is both necessary and satisfying through the last page. Powerful and spellbinding!" --Sadeqa Johnson, New York Times bestselling author of The House of Eve
“A fantastical tale of the power of stories and the bond between sisters…I absolutely loved this book.”—Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of The Many Daughters of Afong Moy
"In this gorgeous ode to books and storytellers, Patti Callahan Henry shows that literature lives inside us, and can unite us despite the odds. Through war, young love, a sister’s remorse, and a mysterious land called Whisperwood, I was torn between savoring each word and tearing through the pages to learn what happened next. Pure magic!" —Janet Skeslien Charles, New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Library
"Patti Callahan Henry is a master of the elusive fairy tale, and nowhere is her talent on better display than in the pages of The Secret Book of Flora Lea, a bittersweet tale of loss, destiny, and the strings of deep love that bind us together across the years. The terror and heartbreak of the World War II children's evacuation of London collide with the dangling threads of an unsolved mystery that picks up nearly two decades later, at the dawn of the swinging Sixties. This heartrending, captivating tale of family, first love, and fate will sweep you away." —Kristin Harmel, New York Times bestselling author of The Forest of Vanishing Stars and The Book of Lost Names
"At the heart of this novel is a shattering loss that irrevocably changes the lives of a cast of complex, delightful characters. Henry is a born storyteller, keeping the reader on tenterhooks as she expertly unveils the truths and lies that drive this gripping, magical tale." —Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Magnolia Palace
“[A]ffecting…Henry’s offering shines most in its exploration of the ways relationships grow and adapt to time and trauma, making for a poignant meditation on the bonds of sisterhood. This captivates.” —Publishers Weekly
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