In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters is detailed, atmospheric historical fiction involving a ghost. In October of 1918, Mary Shelley Black is forced to travel from Oregon to her aunt's home in San Diego after her father is arrested for helping World War I draft dodgers. She faces the terror of the Spanish Flu epidemic, and is soon enmeshed in the local craze for spirit photography (in which photographers claim to be able to photograph ghosts). Mary Shelley is largely skeptical. However, when her soldier boyfriend Stephen is killed, she learns that ghosts do exist.
In the Shadow of Blackbirds has it all: a richly detailed historical setting; suspense; complex characters; and a puzzling mystery. It's not an upbeat book - the dark cover image picture above is representative of the overall mood of the story. But then, it wasn't an upbeat time.
My favorite thing about this book was the way that Winters layered in the historical context. Everything feels organic to the story, and it's impossible to ever forget exactly what time period you are reading about. People are wearing face masks all the time, to guard against the flu. The eat onions and garlic (believing these to be protective), and cast sharp glances at anyone who utters a single cough. Anti-German sentiment runs so strong that people have burned any books or music they might have of even remotely German origin. And, in a time of epic loss of loved ones, between the flu and the war, Spiritualism runs rampant. Occasional black and white photographs included in the book add to the depth of the historical context.
Mary Shelley is a strong character. She is intellectual at a time when women aren't supposed to be interested in learning. She is loyal to what her aunt considers to be a fault. She worries about her fate, but avoids being bitter. She craves books, when her family's books have all been burned. She's even brave enough, in the middle of a flu epidemic, to volunteer at a home for wounded soldiers.
Here's a snippet of the text, to give you a feel for Mary Shelley's voice:
"While my bathwater roared through the downstairs pipes, I wandered around my new room with the compass, checking to see whether the walls behind the gilded paper contained any metal strong enough to move the needle. And for a short while, the lure or scientific discovery blotted out the sea of masked faces on the train ride south, the purplish-black feet rattling the back of that cart, my father getting punched in the gut in front of my eyes, and the first boy I'd ever loved fighting for his life in a trench in France." (Page 25)
The plot regarding Stephen's ghost is decidedly creepy, and not for the faint of heart. But people who enjoy chilling ghost stories will not want to miss it.
The flu details (ambulances racing away with neighbors, caskets piling up outside funeral homes) actually reminded me of more modern apocalypse novels, in which broad swaths of the population succumb to plagues. And because In the Shadow of Blackbirds is based on actual events, it's in some ways more scary (making one wonder would happen, and how people would respond, if a drug-resistant virus came around today).
In the Shadow of Blackbirds is dark in tone, and complex in plotting and structure. But for those readers willing to invest the time, it is both rewarding and illuminating. It's a book that made me very happy NOT to be living in 1918. It's also a book that I won't soon forget. Highly recommended for teens, and anyone who enjoys historical fiction or ghost stories.
Publisher: Amulet Books (@AbramsKids)
Publication Date: April 2, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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