Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters
Published April 2nd 2013 by Amulet Books
ARC received from the publisher
In the Shadow of Blackbirds is one of my favourite books of 2013. Aside from superb story-telling and great characters, it features séances and ghosts, a flu epidemic that hangs over everyone like a dark cloud, the war that costs the lives of thousands of boys and men and one sixteen year-old girl stuck in the middle of it.
Her father imprisoned for being anti-war, Mary Shelley is forced to live with her aunt in San Diego. Returning to the place her love, Stephen, used to live and to see his family again brings back memories. Stephen is at the front, and he hasn’t been returning her letters for a while. Life during 1918 is hard, but it gets even harder when you start to see ghosts.
The main reason I loved In the Shadow of Blackbirds so much is the wonderful backdrop of the story. If this had just been a romantic story between a girl and her childhood sweetheart that has gone to war, I wouldn’t be all that interested. The influenza is a huge part of the story, just like it controlled almost everyone’s thoughts in 1918. The book has chilling vintage photos of nurses and soldiers wearing influenza masks, a tiny barrier between them and almost certain death. The fact that millions were dying at that time isn’t glossed over in this book. Death is everywhere, and can hit anyone at any time.
The combination of the flu, the war and the tendency to fall back to Victorian notions of spirituality because of all the casualties provides an amazingly rick background for the story. It’s scary, and otherworldly, yet still feels so close because so much of what is described in In the Shadow of Blackbirds actually happened.
I was starting to get tired of young-adult fiction with its shallow plots and characters (at least, in the books I seemed to be reading lately), but In the Shadow of Blackbirds proves to me that there are still amazing young-adult books being written that transcend the genre clichés. It has a heroine I can actually root for that isn’t dependant on a guy, it has a love I can believe in and it has villains that are more of a dark-gray than pure cartoon-y black. The pictures just make an already amazing book even more haunting. I can’t wait to read Cat Winters’ next book.
In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?
Featuring haunting archival early-twentieth-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.
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