In the Shadow of Blackbirds
By: Cat Winters
Release Date: April 2, 2013
Publisher: Amulet Books
Summary (via Goodreads):
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.
I learned about the Spanish influenza and World War I in school; reading about the number of people who lost their lives in text books. But, I must admit it never felt real to me- just words that didn’t resonate. While reading In the Shadow of Blackbirds I was able to really grasp the fear and horror of this time period in American history. Winters’ words and descriptions are so powerful I could taste and smell what was being described. I stayed up later than I should reading and then had ghastly nightmares, but it was entirely worth it. It’s one of those rare books that you aren’t the same after you’ve read it. I had to research the Spanish flu and learn more about the time period and the horrible loss of life. While reading I couldn’t help but imagine if this was happening in present day how would things be? I can’t fully grasp the panic and fear. In the Shadow of Blackbirds isn’t a pretty story but it is profound, moving and tragic.
Cat Winters succeeds in creating an atmosphere that pulls you in and enthralls, but her characters are what really drive the novel and wrench your heart. Mary Shelley Black is a strong willed, highly intelligent, scientifically minded 16 year old. She has lost her mother and her father is taken from her for being a traitor. She is flung out of her home and sent to live with her Aunt Eva. Eva has lost her husband and lives alone amidst the horrifying reality of death surrounding her. I think she needs Mary Shelley as much as Mary Shelley needs her.
Lives are not only being lost by the Spanish influenza, soldiers are victims of a raging battle; young boys thrust into trench warfare. Stephen, Mary Shelley’s first love and childhood friend, is the latest victim. Just like Mary Shelley I felt that my time with Stephen was cut horribly short; I mourned his loss with her and looked forward to seeing him in spirit form just as she did. Winters gives depth to all of her characters from Mary Shelley to the people she runs across in her daily life. Winters pulls the reader into the time period, builds scenery, and populates her world with characters that feel real. I understood their motivations, their sadness, their grief.
Quite simply, one of the best books I’ve ever read. In the Shadow of Blackbirds will always be part of me, I’m not likely to ever forget the story Cat Winters told or the characters she created and made real.