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The Secret Book of Flora Lea by Patti Callahan Henry
Historical fiction

The Secret Book of Flora Lea

by Patti Callahan Henry

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Quick take

When a book bearing marks of her family’s WWII past falls into her hands, a rare bookseller goes searching for answers.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_NonLinear

    Nonlinear timeline

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_International

    International

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_BookAboutBooks

    Book about books

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Siblings

    Siblings

Synopsis

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.

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Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of The Secret Book of Flora Lea.
The Secret Book of Flora Lea

CHAPTER 1

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

October 1940

Binsey, Oxfordshire

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.

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Why I love it

Here’s a little secret: I’ve known Patti for my entire writing career. We first met at a raucous book club weekend in East Texas (that’s a story all by itself). We’ve been friends ever since and I’ve been a fan, a cheerleader, and an admirer of her prodigious talents.

That said, Patti has outdone herself with this novel.

Seriously.

Picture yourself fleeing war-torn London, circa 1939. You’re in your teens, trying to protect your five-year-old sister, so you create a sanctuary of story. A magical place called Whisperwood, where the horrors of war are kept at bay by the power of your imaginations. But when tragedy befalls your dear sister, you blame yourself and carry that agonizing loss and secret guilt with you for the rest of your life.

Until decades later, when a book arrives at your door entitled Whisperwood and the River of Stars. The only other person who knew about this secret place was your long-lost sibling. Is she still alive? Has someone else stumbled upon your shared story? Or is this merely a breathtaking coincidence?

I’m dying to tell you. But I won’t. Because like that book arriving in the mail, I have a feeling The Secret Book of Flora Lea will soon be arriving on your doorstep ready to touch your heart.

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Member ratings (3,356)

  • Helena M.

    brooklyn, NY

    This book captivated me. The storytelling is so vibrant and I fell in love with (most) of the characters. The ending didn’t click exactly how I would’ve liked but a worth it read for everything else!

  • Christina C.

    Farmington Hills, MI

    Amazing book! I was hooked! I'm beyond thrilled that Hazel, Flora (Dot), & their mother are reunited in the end. I'm happy Hazel marries Harry as well. I did not know much about Operation Pied Piper.

  • Mary D.

    Hamburg, NY

    I was hooked in the first chapter, as two young sisters whisper about their private other-world. A book about books, mystery, fantasy, family, make believe, and survival? It’s my childhood captured!

  • April H.

    Memphis, TN

    This book was so great. If you love historical fiction and siblings stories, then you will love this book. It was so great. I won't give any spoilers, but run don't walk. This book had all the feels.

  • Virginia P.

    Benton, AR

    My grandmother was one of the kids in the pied piper operation so I found the history of this one particularly interesting. There was a good twist at the end too. I loved the scenery and the Aberdeens

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