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?
Tell Me More: The idea of mortality is never as inescapable or compelling as it is when one is faced with a distinct lack of it, and in 1918, that distinct lack was reality. Between the influenza epidemic and World War I, death was hard to ignore, and so people learned to live with its early arrival. Mary Shelley Black is a little closer than most, however, and Cat Winters tells her story with lyrical words and crisp details that help to colour Mary’s grim world.
I went into Blackbirds having only seen it in a bookstore, and the cover was unforgettable. The girl–Mary–stares straight at you. No embarrassment, no bashfulness, just a steady gaze extending a challenge. That’s the kind of girl Mary is: she doesn’t hide from influenza or the truth, though both are equally frightening in this novel. I absolutely loved her character development because it felt real. She’s brave and unconventional, but she’s also sixteen years old and scared. Being brave doesn’t mean that you are never affected by people or things, and her connection to Stephen reminds the reader that she’s still a young girl who is facing some horrible revelations.
The careful historical detail in the novel brings those horrors to the forefront of the story. In 2014, the flu is easily dismissed, but for Mary, it was constant, consistent death. There were moments when I would have to put the book down to take a deep breath in, grateful that I didn’t have to live through those years. And of course, between the flu outbreak and the first world war, the public’s interest in spirit photography was more than understandable. Mary’s knowledge that Julius, Stephen’s brother, is taking advantage of people with his fake photographs comes into direct contrast with her own awareness of the paranormal. It’s a great juxtaposition and it makes Mary question what she knows to be true, not just about the world around her, but her own perception of that world.
The Final Say: In the Shadow of Blackbirds slips Gothic mystery into a story of the horrors man can wreak upon itself, and the women who see beyond them to reality. Cat Winters is an author whose future work should be watched with anticipation.
Cat Winters’s critically acclaimed debut novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, was named a 2014 Morris Award Finalist, a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013, a 2014 Oregon Spirit Book Award Winner, and a 2013 Bram Stoker Award Nominee. Her upcoming books include The Cure for Dreaming (Amulet Books/Oct. 2014,), The Uninvited (William Morrow/2015), and The Steep and Thorny Way (Amulet Books/2016).