Thursday, February 14, 2013

In the Shadow of Blackbirds - a review

There is no easy segue from yesterday's Captain Underpants review to today's In the Shadow of Blackbirds. I primarily review children's books.  This one is definitely for young adults.

Winters, Cat. 2013. In the Shadow of Blackbirds. New York: Amulet.
Advance Reader Copy supplied by NetGalley.

Through the windows, I watched the boys proceed to a line of green military trucks that waited rumbling alongside the curb. 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. (From Chapter 2, "Aunt Eva and the Spirits")

The year is 1918, and 16-year-old Mary Shelly Black is on her way from Portland to San Diego to stay with her widowed 26-year-old aunt. Her mother is dead. Her father has recently been arrested - swept up in the anti-German immigrant frenzy that's sweeping the country.

The sign in front of the eatery claimed the place specialized in "Liberty Steaks," but that was simply paranoid speak for We don't want to call anything a name that sounds remotely German, like "hamburger." We're pro-American. We swear! (from Chapter 13, "Ugly Things")

Young men are eagerly enlisting to fight in the trenches of Europe, and amidst it all, the "Spanish flu" ravages the population - their flimsy gauze masks are no match for the deadly virus.

The businessmen in smart felt hats rode with me, probably on their lunch break. They buried their gauze-covered noses in the San Diego Union, and one of them felt the need to read the October influenza death tolls out loud. "Philadelphia: over eleven thousand dead and counting - just this month. Holy Moses! Boston: for thousand dead." The use of cold statistics to describe the loss of precious lives made me ill. (From Chapter 17, "Keep Your Nightmares to Yourself")
The bleak situation is made all the worse by her recent discovery that her dearest Stephen, the only bright spot in her sad existence in San Diego, has enlisted in the Army, not because he desires to fight and kill German soldiers, but to show love for his country and free himself from living under the same roof as his brother, a drug-addled, "spirit photographer,"

So this is war. The declaration changed Coronado and San Diego overnight. The men are all enlisting and everyone is hurrying to make sure we all look like real Americans. One of our neighbors held a bonfire in his backyard and invited everyone over to burn their foreign books. I stood at the back of the crowd and watched people destroy the fairy tales of Ludwig Tieck and the Brothers Grimm and the poetry of Goethe, Eichendorff, Rilke, and Hesse. They burned sheet music carrying the melodies of Bach, Strauss, Beethoven, and Wagner. Even Brahm's "Lullaby."
In the Shadow of Blackbirds takes a decidedly darker turn when Mary Shelly learns of Stephen's death in the trenches of Europe.  She attends his funeral, but something is very wrong.  She can hear him, she can feel his torment.  His spirit is not at rest; and amidst the horror of war and the flu pandemic, something else is terribly, terribly wrong.  Spirit photography and séances are commonplace as millions across the country yearn to connect with loved ones lost to war or disease; but Shelly is a girl of science, of rationalism - raised in a house of reason and education.  But how can science and reason explain the anguished pleas of her deceased love?

In The Shadow of Blackbirds is gripping historical fiction and Mary Shelly Black is a tragic yet strong protagonist. Containing some of the same themes as Avi's dark, Seer of Shadows (Harper Collins, 2008) (spirit photography, rationalism vs. spiritualism), In the Shadow of Blackbirds examines these themes as well as romantic love and post-traumatic stress syndrome. The setting (San Diego and nearby Coronado Island) and the juxtaposition of love and war, disease and science combine to offer a dark and gritty debut novel.  The descriptions of trench warfare and everyday life during the massive flu pandemic are gritty and graphic, reminiscent of Mary Hooper's novel of Europe's 17th century plague, At the Sign of the Sugared Plum (Bloomsbury, 2003). The fear of death is almost palpable, made even more so by the reader's knowledge that garlic amulets and gauze masks are powerless against the killer flu. To read In the Shadow of Blackbirds is to be immersed in a grim period of American history that at times, bears resemblance to our own.

From the Author's Note,

...the influenza pandemic of 1918 (this particular strain was known as the "Spanish flu" and the "Spanish Lady") killed at least twenty million people worldwide. (Some estimates run as high as more than one hundred million people killed." Add to that the fifteen million people who were killed as a result of World War I and you can see why the average life expectancy dropped to thrifty-nine years in 1918 - and why people craved seances and spirit photography. 

Note: If you've ever watched the classic Academy Award Best Picture, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), this warning from Mary Shelly to her love will foreshadow and haunt,

 "Please stay safe. It's not everyone who has the patience to photograph a butterfly."

Period photographs of life during the influenza pandemic of 1918 available at these sites:

There are great resources of all kinds (music, vintage video footage and photos) at Cat Winters' site.

Here's the trailer, just released today at the Mod Podge Bookshelf. I wish it hinted at the book's rich historical detail.


  1. If this book is half as good as your review, then it moves way up my list. This sounds fascinating--and well-researched/well-written, too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one.
    On another note, the Phillies are looking healthier this year . . . I've hauled out my jersey, my cap, and my bobbleheads. If my make-shift red-and-white shrine is effective, then we can look fwd to a good start to the season! (I will miss Chooch for the first few weeks, though.)


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