In the Shadow of Blackbirds
By Cat Winters
Published 2013 by Amulet
The nation is in the grip of a Spanish influenza pandemic and Mary Shelley Black is suffering. Not from the flu, exactly, but she's been sent to live with her aunt, leaving her to fret over her father's well-being (he's been imprisoned) and her sweetheart's safety (he's off fighting in the Great War). Amid all the bleakness, Mary sees people desperate for hope, taking their changes with the burgeoning business of spirit photography. When Mary reluctantly poses for one of these photos herself, she begins to question whether it's really a hoax - or if she truly felt the touch of a spirit.
When I first heard about this book, I knew it sounded like a book for me. I love historical fiction, and I have a particular fascination with the period surrounding World War I. Additionally, I love creepy things and the focus on spirit photography was a little bonus for me. I was pleased when this title was announced for the Morris Award shortlist and I happily read it as soon as I could get my hands on a copy.
On the one hand, I thought Winters did a great job creating the atmosphere of this book - it feels just awful, much as I expect America in 1918 would have felt. Everyone is full of paranoia and worry and sadness and death is everyone - overseas in the war and on the home front with the flu. I think Winters nails the time period perfectly. Disturbing as it was, I really liked the times when Mary visited the recovering soldiers - it captured the desperation and tragedy of the times so perfectly. All of the details Winters included helped set the tone as well - the home remedies, the notion of spirit photography. I thought the second half of the book was strong as well, as the mystery deepens and begins to tie together all the pieces.
But that's the book's main failing for me. The first half is a bit scattered - a lot of setting the scene (which is necessary, yes, and well-done, but feels a bit haphazard) and buildup to the second half and the revelations it entails. If the whole book was as good as the second half, I'd have liked it a lot better. As it stands, it was a bit hard for me to really get pulled into Mary's story through the first part of the book. I'll be interested to see what Winters does next.