Godwin, ever the keen observer of human nature, is at her finest here in this startling coming-of-age tale of a young Southern girl grappling with enormous loss and the first twinges of desire. Ten-year-old Helen is our narrator, though moments of decades-later perspective scattered throughout, highlight the importance of living the story through the eyes and feelings of the young girl.
It’s the summer of 1945, Hitler is dead, but the war isn’t over yet, though it seems a long way away, here in this small North Carolina town. Helen’s grandmother, Nonie, had died that spring, and Helen and her father are both struggling. Helen’s father will be spending the summer in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, working on a secret government war project, so he has asked her cousin Flora, a new teaching-school graduate with “the gift of tears,” to stay with Helen. A polio outbreak then confines the two to the house for weeks; Helen thinks she’s going to die of boredom, while Flora practices cooking, teaching, and sharing the advice she received in her correspondence with Nonie. The arrival of Finn, who delivers the groceries, adds a layer of intrigue to the girls’ lives.
The narrative is infused with images of regret, and the reader knows something dark lies ahead. Godwin weaves an incredibly lifelike, suspenseful tale, perfectly capturing the feelings of a ten-year-old whose actions can be at one moment childish, and fully mature and empathetic the next. The Southern landscape is also a vital character in this novel, from the driveway potholes to the overgrown bushes to the disintegrating but still imposing house. This haunting tale of remorse illustrates the burden of responsibility and the lifelong consequences of small decisions.