In the Shadow of BlackbirdsFeatured
Featuring haunting archival early-twentieth-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.
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.
Not only is it the best historical fiction I have EVER read, (and believe me, I've read a lot, at least 50) but the book's heroine, Mary Shelley Black is now my favorite heroine of all time, surpassing even Hermione. Sorry J.K..
Not only is Mary Shelley living in a time of war and disease, but she also has to deal with her father being thrown in prison, for nothing more then not conforming his morals to what the government says is right and wrong, the boy she loves dying, and his tortured spirit that haunts her, trying to escape from monsters he thinks are killing him.
Through all this, she never breaks down, never loses hope, and never gives up.
She is brutally honest, even with herself. When a heroine in a book is trying to solve some horrible mystery, they usually, near the end, break down, say it's too much, and do something to distract themselves, because don't they deserve a break? The one time Mary Shelley finds herself straying off the path of helping Stephan (the boy she loves) find peace, she gives it to herself straight up:
"Why would he pose for a photograph when he's suffering? You're wasting your time trying to satisfy your own curiosity.
Go help him figure out what's wrong."
And she never strays from helping him again. In fact, she throws herself with full body force into helping him.
Another pleasant surprise in the book was that I didn't guess the culprit. I almost always guess whodunit before they are revealed. Only in this book, I kept changing my mind. It's that person right? It has to be them. I know it's them! Oh, but now I don't know. Maybe not. I was guessing until they were revealed, which NEVER happens. I truly didn't know who it was until Mary Shelley said: It was you!
The photos in the book made it a million times better. They helped bring Mary Shelley's world alive. It felt real, which is good, because it was.
I also LOVE the fact that Mary Shelley solves the mystery on her own. Of course she gathers helpful information and clues from various people, but she figures it out by herself. Well, she had some help from Stephen in the end there, thanks to his memories. But she had no sleuthing partner, and no mysterious, handsome, new love interest to mend her broken heart and help her put to rest her dead boyfriend so he could make out with her at the end. THANK YOU CAT WINTERS.
This is a truly astounding, historical, girl empowering, make you think about life, and the kindness and cruelty human beings can deliver punch to the stomach that you won't ever forget. This will be a book that I will keep forever and when I look at it on my shelf I'll think: Wow. There it is. It's real. I read that. I can't believe something that good actually exists. But it is real, I did read it, and there is something that good. And I write this because when you find something really and truly good, you need to share it with the world.
SO GO READ. WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
The thought of a widespread health disaster is enough to terrify me, even today, where medicine and science is at its most advanced. Cat Winters’ debut standalone is set during 1918, the year of the infamous influenza outbreak, and the final moments of the First World War. It is a horrific period of time – one that is difficult to truly forget, despite having taken place nearly a century ago – and an aptly atmospheric setting for In the Shadow of Blackbirds.
It is evident that Winters did her research here (as consolidated by the brilliant author’s note). With gauze masks covering three quarters of the face, public health warnings and signs littering the streets, and coffins spilling out of undertakers’ homes, the so-called Spanish Flu is disturbingly ever-present throughout this book. It’s a time when crowds were to be avoided, spitting was unacceptable, and coughing and sneezing were sure signs of something awful. Even kissing was discouraged, lest any level of intimacy or physical contact aid in the spread of the disease. Winters uses this setting wonderfully and with skill to build together a vivid picture of the paranoia and fear heightened during this time. There is a distinct and fitting bleakness to the story, further aided by the war effort and its contribution to the death toll.
It’s in this time of confusion and sickness that we meet our young protagonist, Mary Shelley Black. Her childhood friend and sweetheart is the latest victim of the war, with his death and unexpected appearance in a spirit photograph creating the basis for the plot. Séances, unexplained phenomena and ghostly apparitions flit in and out of the reality of Mary Shelley’s life, adding an appropriately chilling paranormal edge to the story. It is not too difficult to empathise with Mary Shelley – to fall in love with her, even – and understand her frustration with the war and appreciate her resilience in a time that no sixteen-year-old should have to endure. She is an admirable heroine, believable and compassionate, but not startlingly radical. Cat Winters is clever to subtly weave in contemporary views that a modern audience will undoubtedly agree with, without having to make Mary Shelley a walking piece of symbolism.
My affection for the characters in this book is not limited to the protagonist; Aunt Eva and Stephen create just as much of an impression, and both in very different ways. Eva is an anxious young adult, with folk remedies – think onions, onions and more onions – constantly on her mind. Her relationship with her niece is a beautiful thing, almost heart-breaking, and more than enough to make up for her nearly irritating nervousness. Stephen… Oh, Stephen. There is little that I can truly put into words here, but the romance, although not a truly emphasised part of the story, is wonderfully emotional and real. These are characters that are given perfect care and attention – characters that I will remember and cherish for several years.
In the Shadow of Blackbirds is more of an experience than it is a book. It’s haunting, emotional and wonderfully written, but it’s also educational and thought-provoking. Some striking photographs from this historical period feature throughout, adding an extra special touch to this remarkable debut novel.