“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.
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.
Bravo to Cat Winters for creating a chilling yet realistic world in her debut novel! In the Shadow of Blackbirds is set in a time of absolute horror in the United States, as the awful combination of a brutal war and a deadly flu pandemic makes death feel like a constant presence. The author does a masterful job of creating the feel of the time period, with paranoia and terror rampant in the cities and streets, and with no safe place to hide.
Surely, though, I must have stolen into the future and landed in an H. G. Wells-style world — a horrific, fantastical society in which people’s faces contained only eyes, millions of healthy young adults and children dropped dead from the flu, boys got transported out of the country to be blown to bits, and the government arrested citizens for speaking the wrong words. Such a place couldn’t be real. And it couldn’t be the United States of America, “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
But it was.
I was on a train in my own country, in a year the devil designed.
Mary Shelley is a smart, courageous young woman who sees her whole world turned upside down as her father is imprisoned for treason after daring to speak out against war. As she flees Portland to take shelter with her aunt in San Diego, she seeks word of the boy she loves, only to be told that he’s died a hero’s death in the war. But as Stephen visits her in her dreams and then in waking moments, she realizes that her skepticism about spiritualism may be challenged by a voice trying to reach her from the other side.
This book conveys so much without ever feeling like a history lesson. Through Mary Shelley’s experiences, we see the impact of the war on the homefront, the sickeningly high death toll of the influenza epidemic and the futility of the home remedies used to ward off disease (garlic-flavored chewing gum, bathing in onion water — ugh), the horrible condition of the injured, maimed soldiers home from the battlefields, and the desperation of the bereaved that makes them easy prey for charlatans claiming to be able to channel their dead loved ones.
The plot is tautly woven and fast-paced, but never at the expense of character development. We learn so much about Mary Shelley’s character and her relationship with Stephen through their letters sprinkled throughout the book, as well as by seeing Mary Shelley’s determination to figure out the secrets surrounding Stephen’s messages and help him find peace.
I highly recommend In the Shadow of Blackbirds for anyone who enjoys historical fiction — as well as for anyone who enjoys a good, suspenseful tale, grounded in reality but with a hint of the supernatural. Cat Winters is an extremely talented author, and I can’t wait to read more of her work!
Title: In the Shadow of Blackbirds
Author: Cat Winters
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: April 2, 2013
Length: 387 pages
Genre: Young adult/historical fiction