book review: in the shadow of blackbirds

In the Shadow of Blackbirds, by Cat Winters, was a “holy fuck that was great” YA historical/sf novel. It’s set in San Diego in October 1918 with fresh-faced teenage boys heading off to die in the war and the Spanish Influenza killing everyone else.

Mary Shelley Black is a 16-year-old girl who’s just fled to her aunt’s home because her father’d been arrested back in Portland for helping young men escape the draft. Down in San Diego, where Mary Shelley’s childhood friend (and first kiss) was a young photographer before heading off to France, she gets caught up in a world of superstition, spirit photography and death. She’s got a scientific mind and hates all these frauds that surround her, until something happens. Which I won’t spoil.

I loved this book so much. I think what I loved most was that it kept knocking my expectations off-kilter. I thought it was going to be a story about this practical skeptical girl staying steadfast in her belief in facts and waiting for her true love to come home from the war and her father to get out of jail. Then I thought it was going to become a story of rebellion against her young widowed aunt (who works building battleships and is distraught she had to cut her hair and lose so much of her femininity for going to séances) who believes too much in what other people say. Then I was scared it was going to turn into a wide-eyed ghost story, and then I was happy to see it become a mystery. It didn’t settle into a pattern early.

One of the things they say about writing is to start as late as you can. Have the most interesting thing happen right at the beginning and then you can fill in backstory later. Though Mary Shelley’s father is arrested pretty much on the first page, there are other later parts where the story maybe could have started. But I’m so glad it didn’t. The way this skeptical heroine was set up in the beginning would not have worked as well as backstory. Seeing her before and after for ourselves was, in my mind, integral to the layers of shifting belief and the scientific mindset on display throughout what is to be honest a ghost story.

Along with being a historical ghost story, it also feels apocalyptic with the flu and all that death and folk-remedy hanging over everything. Plus it’s got this great anti-war activist stance running through it. It’s not anti-heroism, but it calls out so much of the adventure story bullshit. The heroes in this story are all about these basic acts of decency in a world that’s sick.

So yes, this is highly recommended. I’m bringing it to my Teen Book Club meeting next week even though our library won’t be getting it for a while (it was just released last week, I think).

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