If ever I wanted a book to go on and on, this is the one. What an original, enchanting, heart-breaking, haunting (no pun intended), story.
In October 1918, 16 year old Mary Shelley (yes, named after the author) Black flees to San Diego and her Aunt Eva on the heels of her father’s arrest for treason back in Oregon. She arrives hoping to hear news of Stephen, first a childhood friend, and then her first true love. He joined the war effort just shy of graduating school, and letters from him are sporadic.
Stephen’s older brother Julius is a Spiritualist, one who claims he can see and capture the spirit world with his camera. Julius preys on the desperate, who have lost so many loved ones to the war overseas and the deadly Spanish influenza. Unknowingly and unwillingly, Mary becomes his muse, helping to attract his bereaved customers with a doctored image.
But Mary’s scepticism of the spirit world takes a beating when she learns Stephen has been lost, and she herself narrowly escapes death, forever changed by the experience. She begins to feel a presence, an overwhelming knowledge that the young man’s essence is near and in agony, and her scientific curiosity gets the better of her as she searches for a way to help Stephen rest in peace.
Author Cat Winters has me caring about her characters from page one. Mary Shelley is a lost girl, trying to deal with the father she loves being arrested, trying to understand why someone doing right can be accused of wrong, trying to handle the enormity of loss brought on by world conflict. Strong and intelligent, she uses a scientific approach to solve her problems, is a feminist raised to see value in the human being, not the gender. “Why can’t a girl be smart without it being explained away as a rare supernatural phenomenon?”
Stephen is as gentle and caring as his brother is vindictive and selfish. His curious mind and nature are drawn to Mary Shelley’s strength and drive, and although we see little of him whole in the novel, Winters draws a complete picture of him. Aunt Eva is a great complex individual – while she is breaking down barriers, proud of her work in the shipyards building battleships while the men are overseas, she also is a product of her time, widowed young and worried that she won’t find a man at her advanced age of 26.
The plot is engaging from the first page. The initial few chapters do a great job of setting the stage, and by the second half I was fully immersed. As Mary’s world unravels, the action is non-stop and I did an extra 15 minutes on the treadmill because I couldn’t stop reading (my thighs thank Cat Winters).
Mary, as a budding scientist, struggles against stereotypes in a man’s world. Winters manages to weave in a few lessons of the struggle for women’s emancipation without it taking over the story. Aunt Eva’s work in the shipyard illustrates in a few words the shifting and changing expectations of women, not only by men but also by the women themselves.
Ugliness and death are everywhere. There is only fear and mistrust where there was life and curiosity before. Everyone wears gauze masks to protect and mask themselves, and a culture of fear evolves, fed by the snake oil salesman and spiritualists.
The search for equality, the hunt for solace, the need for peace, the desire for answers to how and why; Winters manages to explore so many aspects of human nature, without forcing the story or spoon-feeding the reader. Her style is completely captivating. Her writing evokes images of the horror in the trenches, the uncertainty of life in a flu-ridden city, and the beginning of hope.
This is a lovely, multi-layered story, well-researched about a horrific time in world history. It is a snapshot of a time of fatigue, when hope was nearly gone. Along with the gorgeous sepia cover are archival photographs from the period scattered throughout the novel, adding to the realism of the story. It is easily one of my new favourites.
Appropriate for any age, with the acknowledgment that there is description of war wounds and influenza deaths.
In the Shadow of Blackbirds was published April 2nd 2013 by Amulet Books.