Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds – Cat Winters

in the shadow of blackbirdsIn 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.

Rating: 4/5

Brilliant, but so sad. This exquisite tale of a doomed love story is set against the backdrop of World War 1 and the Spanish Influenza epidemic. Our smart protagonist, Mary Shelley, is sent away to live with her young twenty-something aunt after her father is arrested for some kind of treason – preaching anything vaguely anti-war or thoughts that could be construed as anti-american meant rather swift punishment by the authorities. [SO HEY AMERICA, YOU AIN’T CHANGED THAT MUCH AFTER ALL. /sorry]

Amongst all the precautions people are taking to avoid contracting the flu, including face masks and onion treatments, Mary Shelley is being haunted by the ghost of her sweetheart, who was declared dead in the war. His ghostly appearances lead her to believe that his death was not what it seemed, and she sets out to investigate.

I’m fascinated by war stories, particularly those of the two world wars – with a focus on how these young boys were sent off for glory and came back in caskets, or broken. How being scared was simply unacceptable, and how the public just weren’t in a position to understand the horrors they’d gone through. How much of society was ill-prepared to try repair the shattered bodies and minds of those who came back. I’m also interested in this era due to the effect it had on women’s rights – how they did backbreaking manual labour, and kept on keeping on back at home by themselves.

The author presents a wonderfully authentic tale (apart from le ghost, obviously), from the details of the flu epidemic to the war efforts both away and at home. Mary Shelley’s aunt Eva works long shifts in a factory to support them, and is a well-drawn character in her own right- while she doesn’t always understand her niece’s scientific ambitions and investigations, she supports her and loves her nevertheless. The author also did a great job in depicting the superstitious rituals that existed at the time, from seances to spirit photographers.

Finally –

It’s feminist:

“Why can’t a girl be smart without it being explained away as a rare supernatural phenomenon?” 

It’s haunting:

“We live in a world so horrifying, it frightens even the dead.” 

It has a beautiful love story, even though you know it won’t end well:

“If I could have had just five more minutes with you, I would have kissed you until our lips ached, and I would have told you I’ve loved you from the moment you fixed my camera on those church steps when we were little kids…Thank you for coming back into my life before my departure to the unknown.”

It’s critical:

The recruits climbed one by one beneath the vehicles’ canvas coverings with the precision of shiny bullets being loaded into a gun. The trucks would cart them off to their training camp, which was no doubt overrun with feverish, shivering flu victims. The boys who didn’t fall ill would learn how to kill other young men who were probably arriving at a German train station in their Sunday-best clothing at that very moment. 

&

Surely, though, I must have stolen into the future and landed in an H.G. Wells-style world – a horrific, fantastic 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. 1918.

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6 thoughts on “Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds – Cat Winters

  1. I ADORED THIS BOOK. It was written so beautifully and so heartclenchingly (if that’s even a word), and the ending really left a bittersweet taste in my mouth that made me a bit teary-eyed. Plus, it had its creepy moments, too, which the author was able to write without making it so cheesy. Have you read her more recent book about magicians?

    Faye at The Social Potato

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    1. Heartclenchingly can totally be a word, haha – it captures the essence of what you’re trying to describe. I’ve read both of her YA books, and an ARC of her adult offering, The Uninvited. Quite frankly, I think I’m going to read anything and everything she writes – her style really works for me, and I love the inclusion of feminism, the supernatural and really interesting historical aspects.

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  2. I absolutely adore the feminism of Cat Winters’ books. Her second one has even more of a feminist bent, and it’s glorious.

    Very much liking the comparison you drew to today’s society from In the Shadow of Blackbirds, because I didn’t think of it that way. We really haven’t changed that much, and it’s very sad. I feel like Winters is trying to change that, along with a bunch of YA authors writing really progressive stuff. 🙂

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    1. Yes! I’ve read the second one as well – The Cure for Dreaming and absolutely loved it! I adore her writing style, with the combination of historical info, feminism and elements of fantasy. She’s definitely on my auto-buy list.

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