Genre: YA Paranormal
Publisher: Amulet Books
Release date: April 2 2013
Source: ARC from author
“Don’t be afraid of him,” I said. “He doesn’t seem to want to do any harm. He’s just scared. I think between the war and the flu, no one’s going to escape getting haunted. We live in a world so horrifying, it frightens even the dead.”
Cat Winters’ amazingly accomplished debut has everything I look for in a book: a smart and resilient female protagonist, historical details that completely immerse the reader in the story, and several layers of mysteries with carefully timed and drawn-out explanations (one might say agonizingly drawn-out!). You can tell you’re in the early part of the twentieth century because nothing moves very fast: people travel by train from state to state, letters take months to arrive by mail, and injured soldiers lie in wait for doctors and nurses to care for them. This slow build-up of tension not only describes the state of the nation in 1918, the time period that In the Shadow of Blackbirds is set in, but it makes the spooky moments in the story even more terrifying. You may have to wait until the end to have all your questions answered, but I guarantee you’ll relish every word along the way.
Mary Shelley Black’s life is about to get complicated. Her father has just been arrested for treason, and her idyllic life in Portland, Oregon is about to end. With no adults to care for her (her mother is already dead), Mary Shelley sets off by train to San Diego, California to stay with her Aunt Eva, wearing her sturdy Boy Scout boots and the ever-present gauze mask over her face to keep the Spanish influenza at bay. It’s October of 1918 and Americans are suffering: from the war; the fast-spreading Spanish flu; and an economy that is getting worse by the minute. Mary Shelley’s only ray of hope is connecting with the Embers family in San Diego who may have news about Stephen, Mary Shelley’s beau that has gone off to fight in the war.
When she arrives in San Diego, her aunt takes her to the Embers house to sit for a “spirit photograph” and to pick up a package that Stephen has left for her. Stephen’s brother Julius, who has become a renowned spiritualist photographer by catching “spirits” hovering over his subjects after the photos are developed, is anxious to have Mary Shelley pose for him, although she believes him to be a fake. But when the finished photo shows the ghostly image of Stephen next to her, Mary Shelley’s worst fears are realized: Stephen has died in the war.
Before she can grasp what’s happened, the ghost of Stephen appears in her bedroom, and Mary Shelley’s beliefs are put to the test. Stephen’s ghost is scared, and it’s up to her to figure out the mystery behind his death. What do blackbirds have to do with it? What is the meaning behind the cryptic phrase that Stephen wrote on the lightning photograph he left for her? And will Mary Shelley survive the flu epidemic long enough to find her answers? These questions and more are finally answered, but the author puts her characters through the wringer first.
Cat has a wonderful talent for description, and she picked a period in history that allowed her to use that talent to its fullest. I could almost smell all the things she describes: the sweat of unwashed bodies, the stench of the dead flu victims, and especially the stinging smell of garlic and onions, which are everywhere in the story (Aunt Eva puts onions and garlic in everything she cooks). I will tell you right now, I suffered terrible onion trauma while reading this book! (I hate onions!) In one memorable scene, Mary Shelley is struck by lightning, and afterwards she is able to taste other people’s emotions. Even the smell of blood invades the story, when the author vividly describes injured soldiers lying in trenches and waiting on cots for medical attention.
The story is full of wonderful props that add authenticity to the time period. For example, Mary Shelley’s most beloved possession is a pair of goggles that she carries everywhere (her father told her she could see the future through them), and at her aunt’s house she discovers her uncle’s old nautical compass that turns out to be important to the plot. I grew to hate the ever-present gauze masks that everyone wears to avoid breathing the poisonous, germ-laden air, but I loved the descriptions of photography in 1918 (the use of glass plates and flash powder was so interesting!) and how crazed people were over seeing their dead loved ones in a spirit photograph.
All the characters are well done, including Aunt Eva, saddened by her husband’s death but determined to take care of Mary Shelley, and the despicable Julius, who is only concerned about himself and will go to great lengths to get what he wants. I even loved ghostly Stephen, although he terrified me (you’ll see what I mean when you read the book!) and the romance between him and Mary Shelley was sweetly done.
But my favorite part of this book (and it’s very hard to pick a favorite, because I loved everything about it!) was Mary Shelley. She’s a curious, plucky and intelligent girl and one of the best characters I’ve run across lately. She lives up to her namesake (yes, that Mary Shelley) with her interest in science and medicine, and she rarely follows orders. She’s determined to find out what really happened to Stephen, even if that means getting hurt in the process. She’s a character who has lost so much—her mother, her father, the man she loves—and has so much more to lose with the threat of disease hanging over her head. But she bravely puts all that aside in order to find the truth.
For me, the truest test of a wonderful book is this: can the author make me cry? Cat Winters did just that. In the Shadow of Blackbirds was an emotional journey back to a miserable time in history, but the author manages to inject joy into the story by the end. The last part of the book will blow you away, and when all the mysteries are finally solved, including what really happened to Stephen, you will probably be in tears, too. Highly recommended!
Many thanks to the author and publisher for my review copy. And check back tomorrow to read my interview with Cat!