Isolated on a North Carolina mountain top in the summer of 1945, in the rather shabby home of her grandparents called the “Old One Thousand,” the narrator, eleven-year-old Helen and her mother’s cousin Flora are waiting till summer ends and Helen’s father returns. Helen’s mother died when she was three and her grandmother Nonie has just recently died, so much to Helen’s annoyance, her father called upon Flora, a naïve young woman to be Helen’s companion while he goes away for the summer to do war work at Oak Ridge, TN.
For the first week, before Flora arrives, Helen had a choice of three friends with whom to stay and chose the one with the huge house, pool and a cook over her friend Brian who wanted to be a classical actor and was taking elocution lessons with an English lady. She would have had more fun with Brian and when he contracted polio during the week, for going to a swimming hole, she felt an enormous amount of guilt. But as her friend Annie later tells her, “Other people don’t exist when we’re not with you. We’re toys or something. You play with them and examine them and then you put them on a shelf and go away. We don’t have lives, we’re just your playthings.”[p.104]
Reading Flora is disturbing despite the beautiful writing. Helen seems to not feel any guilt for ridiculing Flora, who seems like an inconvenience in her life, especially after her father calls and orders them not to go out or have visitors. Helen who had an “irreproachable grandmother” [p 99] writes, “I was reminded afresh that my biggest fear concerning Flora was how her lack of reserve would reflect on our family.” In the middle of the book the issue of remorse comes up, before we even know what is to become of the characters on the mountaintop. “When did remorse fall into disfavor? It was sometime during the second half of my life.” Helen states, “Remorse is wired straight to the heart… it went out of fashion around the same time that ‘Stop feeling guilty,’ and ’You’re too hard on yourself.’ And ‘You need to love yourself more’ came into fashion.” [p. 152]
In the end I was left grieving for Helen and the harm she caused as well as with many questions. Gail Godwin has long been one of my favorite authors. She didn’t disappoint with this novel; in fact it was full of surprises as most of her books. In the end I was left grieving for Helen and the harm she caused as well as with many questions. Helen’s tale is told from the point of view of an old lady looking back with remorse and written for her, Flora Waring.