In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters
Published: April 2, 2013, Amulet Books
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction, Paranormal
Source: Library book
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A scientific mind like yours should want to explore the communication between spirits and mortals, Aunt Eva had said the day I arrived at her house. It's no different than the mystery behind telephone wires and electrical currents.
She was right. If I could figure out why I was still able to see Stephen, it would be no different than Thomas Edison discovering how to create electric light out of carbon filaments and dreams. Or the Wright brothers proving humans could fly.
The impossible often turned possible.
In the autumn of 1918, Mary Shelley Black finds that the entire world has become uprooted, from the larger crises of World War I and the Spanish Influenza, to the smaller, more personal tragedies. Her father has been branded a traitor, and Mary is forced to live with her recently widowed aunt in San Diego. While there, Mary Shelley learns that her childhood best friend and sweetheart, Stephen, has passed away while serving overseas.
Even with war, disease, death, and famine, all is not as it seems. Named after Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley Black has an interest in science and reason. She feels out-of-place in a society where her aunt serves onions at all meals to keep out the flu, where people flock to spiritual photographers in the hopes of making more sense of life through communing with the dead. But then Stephen's ghost appears before Mary Shelley, demanding that she save him from the blackbirds, and all Mary Shelley's preconceived notions of truth and science and logic are put to the test.
Now this is how a historical fiction novel should be done. The juxtaposition of an international conflict, a national pandemic, the rise in spiritualism, and a character study of Mary Shelley Black gives Winters a lot of material to work with. At times towards the beginning, the many plot threads feel a bit disconnected and overwhelming. But as the story goes on, they begin to intertwine in an incredibly beautiful and poignant way.
Mary Shelley Black is a wonderfully eccentric character whose unconventionality allows her to fit so well within the context of the novel. Through her there are allusions to Frankenstein, Benjamin Franklin, and many historical women who did not let their scientific proclivities be dictated by a male-dominated society. Intelligent, resourceful, determined, and, above all else, loyal to those she loves, Mary Shelley demonstrates the many ways a female character's strength does not have to be physical.
One of the best aspects of In the Shadow of Blackbirds is the relationship between Mary and Stephen. Except for one stolen kiss taken many months earlier, Mary and Stephen were simply friends throughout Stephen's life. Good friends, even great friends. While most of the world looked down upon Mary Shelley's unconventional interest in the sciences and mechanics of the world, Stephen was one of her greatest supporters. And now Mary Shelley will do whatever it takes to end Stephen's suffering in the spirit world. Theirs is a relationship of wasted opportunities and missed chances, but that makes it no less important. Indeed, the nuances of this relationship make it one of the strongest and most realistic I've read in quite some time.
What starts out as a purely historical fiction novel acquires a paranormal aspect through Stephen's ghost. Along with Mary Shelley, readers are already very aware of the dead count piling up to due the war and influenza. There's little Mary Shelley can see when she walks outside of her aunt's house that is unrelated to a growing body count. Through the spirit photographers, many people already believe that the dead remain a vital part in the lives of the living. Mary Shelley is forced to acknowledge this truth when Stephen's spirit begins to show itself to her. Even harmless as he is, the mystery surrounding Stephen's death and the belief in other spirits roaming the earth lends a sense of unease to the novel.
At times, there are shifts from a lingering sense of unease to one of unadulterated eeriness. As Stephen reveals more and more memories of his final days and Mary Shelley searches for answers, the tension grows and grows. Winters' choice to include photographs of the war effort and influenza lend to the creepy vibe. Through so many events and in so many ways, what seems to unite people in this dark time is the fear of death. And yet Mary Shelley is stronger than all of that, for herself, but also to save the boy she loves.
I turned the final page of In the Shadow of Blackbirds feeling as though I had actually learned many things. Through this novel, Winters has done what historical fiction authors should always strive to do: place a historical event into a focused perspective with enough attention to details that readers can truly feel transported back to this time period. The little details are the ones that truly are the most effective: the household remedies, Mary Shelley's observations of the outside world, the black and white photographs.
Honestly, I cannot recommend this novel enough. Meticulously researched, meticulously written, In the Shadow of the Blackbirds is an ambitious book that truly lives up to the author's ambitions. I look forward to reading Winters' future books.