In 1918, in the heart of World War I and the influenza epidemic, sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black finds herself living in San Diego in the care of her widowed aunt, a woman only ten years her senior. All around her, the world is responding to the tragedies occurring overseas and at home by seeking answers in the paranormal. Mary Shelley, a scientist and skeptic, does not buy into the concept of “spirit photographers” and seances, believing that these are ways for people to take advantage of the grief of others. However, a personal loss leaves her with experiences that cannot be explained through her normal scientific mind.
In the Shadow of Blackbirds is Cat Winters’ debut novel. It is historical fiction built on an intriguing tale that is part mystery, part ghost story. The book is full of beautiful prose with vivid descriptions. As I read, I felt as if I could taste, see, and feel the scenes playing out on the pages. With the theme of spirit photography running through the plot, Winters’ storytelling mimics the creepy, yet beautiful feel of this art. While many novels use World War I as a backdrop, Winters has added a layer of threat by placing her characters in the middle of the influenza epidemic. Mary Shelley’s world is a very real, very frightening one. Far from the battlefields, she has to arm herself with a gauze mask before leaving her home. With doors and windows kept shut tight, her world is both literally and figuratively stifling.
Mary Shelley serves as a strong female lead with a fascinating perspective. She has a strong scientific mind and views the world through a critical eye. As the daughter of a deceased female doctor- an unusual profession for a woman at this time- and a a war critic under arrest for suspicion of being a traitor, she believes in the importance of questioning everything and standing up for what she believes. All of this creates a strong contrast of scientific exploration and spiritualism. She is a woman of science who cannot deny the otherworldly experiences that are occurring.
I found In the Shadow of Blackbirds to be a unique story, but it has many of the themes common to YA. There is a love story there, although it is rather non-traditional. Much of the story focuses on Mary Shelley’s affections for a childhood friend turned love, Stephen, who enlisted and was shipped off to France months earlier. It is her concern for Stephen that leads to her paranormal explorations. This relationship also highlights the coming-of-age theme within the book: Mary Shelley is faced with the reality that her childhood friend has made a very adult decision with very serious consequences. The importance of family plays out through Mary Shelley’s concern for her aunt’s well-being, as well as the fate of her father. Though deceased, her mother’s life had a big impact on Mary Shelley and has shaped the young woman that she is, as well.
While the themes and setting on In the Shadow of Blackbirds seem quite heavy, Winters’ writing is lovely and makes for a very easy read. I was sad to see it end and have found myself recommending it a number of times since I finished reading. I look forward to reading her next novel, The Cure of Dreaming, scheduled to be released in fall of this year.
– Jessica Lind, currently reading Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo