The Secret Book of Flora Lea

Feb 20, 2024 | Book Reviews

I’ve read numerous World War II novels. Yet all I know about London’s evacuation of children is from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Which is ironic, because author Patti Callahan Henry’s novel, The Secret Book of Flora Lea, was inspired when researching C.S. Lewis for another book. (See the Q & A below.) 

Another irony—the evacuation was called Operation Pied Piper, alluding to the Brothers Grimm tale with the catastrophic ending. 

In the novel, sisters Hazel (14) and Flora (5) are evacuated to the village of Binsey. Seeking solace from the horrors of war and separation from their mother, they escape to the enchanting world of Whisperwood. They enter this world—called into existence by Hazel—through the shimmering doors of imagination rather than a wardrobe. 

Making this a story about a story. Purely imaginary, not “real” like Narnia. But just as true.

However, instead of launching amazing adventures like those of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy in Narnia, Hazel and Flora’s time in the English countryside results in disaster when Flora goes missing. Turning the ironic label of Operation Pied Piper prophetic.

But the story’s not over, and this one has magical powers of a different sort. 

In 2023, The Secret Book of Flora Lea was Barnes & Noble Best Book of the Year, Book Riot Best of 2023, GoodReads Historical Fiction Book of the Year, and She Reads Book of the Year.

Atria Books (May 2, 2023)



My Thoughts

Two of my cousins and I read this book at the same time. Though the novel captivated us, we each had differing opinions about the ending and strong opinions about who Hazel should end up with—Barnaby or Harry. I can’t say more without giving spoilers. But I point this out because it proves the power of story—how characters engage us, make us hope, wish, laugh, and cry, and care about their wellbeing and futures.

In 1960, twenty years after Flora disappeared, Hazel finds new reason to hope that her sister can still be found. Not that she ever gave up hoping. In fact, that’s one of the tensions here. Her kind, thoughtful man Barnaby doesn’t understand why Hazel can’t just reconcile with the past and let Flora rest in peace. 

But it’s impossible. Especially when Hazel discovers a book titled Whisperwood and the River of Stars by American author Peggy Andrews. Nobody but her sister Flora ever knew about Whisperwood. And this book is too similar to Hazel’s original stories to be coincidental. 

Memories thrust Hazel back into 1939, days of living in the charming hamlet of Binsey with Bridgette Aberdeen and her teenage son Harry. Hazel is forced to reckon with everything that transpired before Flora disappeared. And what might have caused it. Including herself.

Back then, Bridie and Harry became family to Hazel and Flora, surrounding them with love and warmth. The beautiful countryside along the River Thames was the perfect birthplace for Whisperwood, a place Hazel regularly took Flora in her imagination. A place of comfort and refuge. Later a place of fear and regret. 

But again, the story’s not over . . . Read it and see for yourself how the enduring power of story and love for a sister never end.

NOTE: Pre-marital sex and a few occasions with offensive language. But please don’t let these stop you from reading this book.

Join me for some Q & A with Patti Callahan Henry.

Author Patti Callahan Henry

Questions about The Secret Book of Flora Lea

When I was writing Once Upon a Wardrobe I ran across a little known fact — that the operation to keep children safe in England during WWII was called “Operation Pied Piper.” I was intrigued by this choice as the pied piper is a terrible legend about lost and drowned children. Why, I wondered, would the British government name a scheme to keep children safe after such horror? 

My imagination was off and running. My personal connection to the setting comes from my time spent in the Oxfordshire countryside while researching both Becoming Mrs. Lewis and Once Upon a Wardrobe. I love the area and since Oxford is one of the places the government sent children, it was a perfect setting for me. 

In addition, Binsey is a story-soaked place that lent itself to a story about stories. 

The only historical parameters I used were time and place — 1939 and 1960 London and Oxfordshire. I consider these two things (time and place) the spine of the story, and I didn’t change anything about them. The characters, the fairy tale and the relationships were purely from my imagination. 

What would she say about me? Oh goodness, I hope she’d say “Thanks for bringing me to life and making me brave.” 

The challenges here weren’t as difficult as they were in other novels for me because one character (Hazel) narrated both time lines. Hazel was our tour guide through both 1939 and 1960 — and this was our through-line. The usual challenge in split time is making sure that there is a through-line that makes sense, and for this novel, it was built in. 

I want readers to take with them what is most important to them. On Friends and Fiction, we often talk about what the story is about and what it is really about — and for me, this story is really about the power of story, about women making the choices to have autonomy over their own life through courageous stories, and about love in all its forms. 

My favorite discovery was the hamlet of Binsey, where the story is set! This led to discovering the story of the Patron Saint of Oxford – St. Frideswide. What a fascinating hamlet full of old legends and stories. 

Questions about Writing

Anne Rivers Siddons, Pat Conroy, Maggie O’Farrell, Paula McLain, and Julia Cameron. 

The Secret Book of Flora Lea — it has hints about the things I care the most about. 

Patience, little grasshopper. 


If you like dual timeline fiction, you might enjoy my novel, A Hundred Magical Reasons. This story spotlights L. Frank Baum—author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—his friendship with a young girl, and his impact through the decades. Set in Holland, Michigan, this pre-published novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Read more and watch the book trailer here. The story recently won a novel contest and is under consideration at a publishing house.

If you like small town/rural stories about family dynamics and secrets, you might enjoy my re-launched novel All That Is Hidden. Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.

  • Winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award
  • Semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest


Patti Callahan Henry Bio

Patti Callahan Henry is a New York Times, Globe and Mail, and USA Today bestselling author of seventeen novels. She is the recipient of The Christy Award “Book of the Year”; The Harper Lee Distinguished Writer of the Year and the Alabama Library Association Book of the Year for Becoming Mrs. Lewis. She is the co-host and co-creator of the popular weekly online Friends and Fiction live web show and podcast. She’s published in numerous anthologies, articles, and short story collections. A full-time author, mother of three, and grandmother of two, she lives in Mountain Brook, Alabama with her husband, Pat Henry. Learn more on her website.


Join me next time for a visit with author Liz Tolsma.

Meanwhile, have you read The Secret Book of Flora Lea or any others by Patti Callahan Henry? Do you like World War II dual timeline stories? Answer in the comments below.

Ever reading,


Coming soon: A Hundred Magical Reasons, a novel

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  1. Ruth Schmeckpeper

    What an interesting idea for a novel. I can’t imagine Hazel’s pain of losing a sister and then finding a book of their fantasy play. I hope that means her sister is alive and well, but I guess I’ll have to read it to find out. 🙂

    • Laura DeNooyer

      Yes, I guess you’ll have to read it! It’ll be worth your time. 🙂

  2. Mary Larson

    This book sounds refreshingly unique! The creative use of the story within a story makes it an inviting read. The topic is interesting, as well. Thank you for sharing this one with us.

    • Laura DeNooyer

      You’re welcome! And thank you for dropping by, Mary!

  3. Anita Klumpers

    You know the problem with Audible? You don’t always make the connection with who the author is. When I saw the name Patti Callahan Henry I didn’t connect with the author of “Once Upon a Wardrobe’ that I finished listening to recently! (She is listed as Patti Callahan there, but that is no excuse for me).
    The premise of this novel is so intriguing, and I enjoyed her answers to your questions.
    Well done, Laura!
    (I look forward to the day Patti interviews you on her podcast)

    • Laura DeNooyer

      Glad you figured out who the author was, Anita! Once Upon a Wardrobe is a book I had already added to my list and look forward to reading.

  4. Elizabeth Daghfal

    Wow! Quite the awards for this book. Sounds fascinating. Now she’s got me wondering, why DID they call it Operation Pied Piper? Although I can imagine it was named by someone who didn’t actually read the story, just knew it was about kids getting out of town? I’ve been amazed at how often that happens–some horrible event becomes the catchphrase from something the exact opposite.

    And Laura, now you’ve got me intrigued as to how you wanted it to end vs your cousins. I know I’ll have to read the book to see what happened, but I have to ask–Did you get what you wanted?

    It never ceases to amaze me how many aspects of WWII there are to write about. I’ll have to check this one out.

    • Laura DeNooyer

      I don’t know why they picked the name Operation Pied Piper. Regarding the ending, my cousins got their way, but I didn’t. 🙂

  5. Nancy Radosevich

    This novel sounds very intriguing. I love the Chronicles of Narnia, and the world of Whisperwood sounds like a perfect place to visit. Thank you for highlighting this story! I’ll need to add it to the list!

    • Laura DeNooyer

      I hope you get a chance to read it soon!


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