In The Shadow Of Blackbirds by Cat Winters. April 2, 2013. Harry N. Adams. 400 pages. Ages teen & up.
1918 was a terrible year for much of the world. Between The Great War and the Spanish flu epidemic, disease, destruction, and death where everywhere. In a time filled with fear and loss, people were desperate for comfort and security, which led to a renewed interest in Spiritualism, often turning to questionable sources such as seances and so-called "spirit photography". There was also a pervasive fear and distrust of anything German or remotely "un-American".
It was during this horrible year that sixteen-year old Mary Shelley Black, named after the Frankenstein author, found herself escaping Portland following the arrest of her father for treason, and fleeing to San Diego, to live with her aunt. Coincidentally, her childhood sweetheart's family had also relocated to the area previously, though Stephen was now gone to fight in the war. Stephen's older half-brother Julius remained, and was now engaged in the questionable business of spirit photography, which provided desperate people some comfort. Mary Shelley does not like or trust Julius, and believes his supposed photos capturing the spirits of deceased loved ones are a result of tricks of photography, not actual spirits.
Tragically, they soon receive word that Stephen has been killed in battle, and Mary Shelley finds herself overcome with grief. Worse, she begins to be haunted by visions of Stephen and sometimes hears his voice whispering in her ear. At first she believes these are dreams or hallucinations brought on by grief and fears she may be losing her mind, since she does not believe in ghosts. However, she is soon convinced that she really is being visited by Stephen's spirit, and that he is very troubled and needs her help to find peace. Stephen does not seem to understand that he is dead or how he died, and is terrified of horrible bird-like creatures that are torturing him.
The more Mary Shelley is visited by Stephen's spirit, the more she begins to question what happened to him and if the version of his death they were told is really the truth. Will she be able to help him find peace, before she falls victim to the flu epidemic? What is the truth?
I initially chose this book because the name of the main character caught my attention, first thinking "Mary Shelley...wasn't that....?", then realizing once I started reading that this was not a coincidence. I really enjoyed this relatively fast-paced novel that is part history, part ghost story. It had so many components, the historical point of view reflecting the fear and grief of the times and the interest in Spiritualism, the love story of Stephen and Mary Shelley, photography, and mystery. It made for a good story that had just the right degree of spookiness for a good pre-Halloween read (as I'm not a fan of horror). I loved how smart, strong, and independent Mary Shelley was, believing in science and not superstitions.
Another thing I appreciated was how the book tied the realities of WWI and the Spanish flu pandemic together. Although I was aware that each had happened around that time, I had always had them compartmentalized them in my mind, always thinking of them singularly, never really thinking about them going on simultaneously, and what that world would be like. I would imagine not one family escaped being touched by death from one or the other, or both. I also like how it incorporated actual photographs from the era, including some alleged spirit photos. They added another element of spooky to the book.
I think this book could appeal to a wide range of readers, having something to offer fans of historical fiction, romance, mysteries, and ghost stories alike. I would encourage anyone looking for something subtly-spooky or something a little different to give it a try.
Other Books By This Author
In The Shadow Of Blackbirds was Cat Winters' debut novel. Her second young adult novel, A Cure For Dreaming, was released October 14, 2014, followed by her first novel for adults, The Uninvited, in August of 2015. She has two novels due to come out in 2016, a young adult novel titled The Steep And Thorny Way, and a second novel for adults titled Yesternight. She is also a contributor to the 2015 horror anthology Monster Girls and Slasher Boys.