The Secret Book of Flora Lea

Uncertainty about the possible bombing attacks over England in 1939 led the British government to a difficult decision as WW II escalated in an effort to protect the children of their country. It would mean relocating children from places where bombing attacks were likely to low-risk places in the countryside. It would be called Operation Pied Piper that we get glimpses of in the C.S. Lewis’s epic Narnia story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

What not everyone knows is that after this declaration was made in September 1939, more than three million children were evacuated in just four days and that number swelled to more than three and a half million before the operation concluded. Some were sent into the English countryside while others were sent to South Africa, Australia, the United States and Canada.

Can we even begin to imagine the emotional impact on the parents who made this decision or on their children? The C.S. Lewis story shows us how a fantasy story helps Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy handle that challenge, but what about the real children standing with luggage name tags and gas masks around their necks? Untold stories of these children give us various answers to that question.

Patti Callahan Henry’s newly released novel, The Secret Story of Flora Lea, takes us on an adventure of two sisters, Hazel, and Flora Lea, who were among those who left London and lived in the small hamlet of Binsey outside of Oxford with a mother (Bridie) and son (Harry). The story transports you into all the emotions such a move meant for each character involved and how a fantasy story Hazel created helped them cope with the uncertainty of that time. Over and over again the sisters visit the magical place of Whisperwood that Hazel creates and brings comfort to Flora Lea.

Hazel would begin each adventure in Whisperwood this way: “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.”

The tales of Whisperwood would accompany Hazel and Flora Lea as they explored the meadows and woodlands around Binsey and was a secret the girls shared. Their new home seemed to be a magical place as well with the artistry of Bridie and Harry and kept the horrors of the war and bombings from haunting them despite glimpses of those things when their mother was able to come visit them.

This favorite author of mine does not disappoint in her newest book as she develops the relationships of the main characters in the midst of the sisters’ magical tale of Whisperwood that sometimes blurred the real with the fantasy. Page by page the story weaves a tale beyond the story the girls make up. Twists and turns deepen into a mystery when Flora Lea disappears from a blanket near a river without a trace leaving Hazel in guilt-ridden grief for failing to protect her younger sister.

Not until the very end of the book will Flora Lea’s mysterious heart-breaking disappearance and the story of the other characters be fully revealed. The author keeps you in suspense in ways few authors can do and in the end in the author’s notes, it becomes clear that Patti Callahan Henry succeeds in the goal she sets as she tells the wondrous story.

In The Secret Book of Flora Lea, I wanted to tell a tale in a mystical landscape that echoed with the enchantment of storytelling, a story of sisterly bonds, and first naive love, of innocence lost and maintaining hope against all odds. I wanted the girls to live in a magical land of both their imagination and of nature…”

However you are spending your summer, this book would be a great companion to enjoy. Your heart will connect with Hazel as she looks for her sister and agonizes over her loss.

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