You know what I love? Books that are wholly unique among all the ones I've read. Though In the Shadow of Blackbirds does remind me of a couple other books, it is clear and distinct and beautiful in a way all its own. Cat Winters' debut blew me out of the water, teetering on the edge between realistic historical fiction and paranormal in a startling and compelling tale.
In the Shadow of Blackbirds is one of those books that will be first up on my list of young adult books to recommend to those who look down on teen books. Cat Winters' debut has so much depth and heart. Winters writes beautifully, and I marked any number of passages that really moved me as I read. Nor is the subject matter in any way juvenile, as Mary Shelley Black, though but 16, is, in a lot of ways, on her own.
Just the other day, I read a post by Winters on a blog about how she started out writing adult fiction and why she made the switch to YA. She mentioned that seeing through a child's eyes can offer an openness and honesty that you won't find in adults. It's a wholly different lens through which to view tragedies, like war and plagues. This sense that a youth's perception is in no way less valuable or meaningful than an adult's really comes through, and is quite empowering. Winters highlights the things that a younger person can see that an adult might miss, all without talking down to her intended audience.
The historical elements are brilliantly done. Reading In the Shadow of the Blackbirds, I felt steeped in another time and place, California in 1918. Though World War II is a looming shadow in the background, the real horror in her life is the epidemic of the Spanish flu. People are dying left and right, and indulging in outlandish, superstitious methods to prevent catching the illness, like eating endless amounts of onion or burning sulfur (which smells like rotten eggs). Winters also, through the distant character of Mary Shelley's father, shows the darker side of the patriotism of the era. He tried to help save young men from going to fight in battle, and is branded a traitor.
Winters delves deeply into the spiritualism of the time. As young men died on battlefields in Europe, desperate family members turned to the occult in their desire to communicate with their lost loved ones: mediums, spirit photographers. Mary Shelley's love interest, Stephen, believes that ghosts are not real, merely a hoax perpetuated by dishonest men like his brother, Julius. Mary Shelley has no interest or belief in it, but her Aunt Eva, who she is staying with since her father is now in prison, subscribes to it and drags her along, with the promise of hearing news of Stephen, off fighting in Europe. Since I do not want to spoil anything, I'll just say that there's some awesome, ghosty paranormal things that make the reader question just what is or is not happening to Mary Shelley.
Mary Shelley is a vibrant, headstrong, powerful heroine. She fights for others as hard as she can, working to unravel the mystery that becomes apparent to her. In the face of the often fatal flu, she does not take insane risks, but she also refuses to lock herself up inside out of fear. She even volunteers her time to help wounded soldiers. I really love this girl, and the way that she chooses to live, and I feel bad for all of her struggles in a society that doesn't appreciate a woman being as forward-thinking as she is.
What Left Me Wanting More:
I wouldn't have minded getting a bit more Stephen!
The Final Verdict:
In the Shadow of Blackbirds is a masterfully-crafted debut. Those who enjoyed Libba Bray's The Diviners will most definitely want to try Winters' book, which has a similar powerful blend of history and paranormal elements.