In the Shadow of Blackbirds


In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters was published in April 2013 and the copy I have used for this review is my own. (I slunk out of Chapters in a cloud of guilt. Sorry Kidsbooks.)

I’m itching to get on with the review so I’ll just leave you with the summary from the official website, shall I?

In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?

Featuring haunting archival early-twentieth-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.

Surely there’s something odd about a Hindu saying HOLY COW, but that’s what I’m feeling right now so, HOLY COW YOU GUYS! I’ve already made my feelings on creepy photography rather clear but this is a whole new kind of creepy because most of the pictures in the book don’t feature “ghosts” or animal guts, instead they have real people in real trenches with real gauze masks and a nearly photographable aura of trauma.

Basically, that’s what really scared me about this book. War time. And how eerily awesome Winters is at reviving that part of American (and really, also world) history.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Have I even mentioned the protagonist yet? Her name is Mary Shelley. Well, her full name is Mary Shelley Black, though there is no doubt that her first and middle names have a lot to do with her literary namesake. Consider the evidence:

  • EXHIBIT A: Mary Shelley Black’s father is a bit of a radical because of his pacifist beliefs. He is, consequently, arrested for aiding the escape of young men who do not want to go to war. William Godwin, the father of Mary Shelley the writer, was never arrested for his political beliefs (he was, apparently, the first modern anarchist) but he did live in near-secrecy for about thirty years.
  • EXHIBIT B: Mary Shelley Black’s mother had died giving birth to her. Mary Wollstonecraft died ten days after the birth of her daughter from sepsis.
  • EXHIBIT C: Mary Shelley Black’s mother was a rare woman- a practicing doctor in her time. Mary Wollstonecraft is often considered one of the earliest feminists due to her publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Women: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Both Mary Shelleys are deeply affected by the mothers they did not really know.
  • EXHIBIT D: Lightening. It was how Frankenstein gave life to his creation, and it was how Mary Shelley Black gained the ability to communicate with spirits. And so, the protagonist of In the Shadow of Blackbirds is the scientist as well as the monster, which is an interesting conflict to give a character.

Mary Shelley Black has to deal with a lot- war, disease, separation from family, arrest of father, moving in with her aunt, casual sexism, death of a loved one, getting struck by lightening, being able to see spirits despite her previous arguments that there are no such things- and the thing is, Winters handles all of these elements rather well. I would have preferred a bit more agonizing over the “Hang on, spirits are really real?” moment, but I guess when one’s dead boyfriend shows up as a ghost one would save the internal conflict for later? (I wouldn’t know.) And in any case, while the romance and the horror are both quite compelling, in the end they are vehicles that Winters has employed to explore some bigger questions- like what it means to be “brave” during wartime.

Which leads me to the next awesome thing about this book. You’d think that with a protagonist named Mary Shelley who is living through the First Wave of Feminism, the guys would get the short end of stick. But no, you get properly nuanced dudes who will certainly make you feel for them as you would with a real person. Or at least, a real historic person. And as someone who spent much of their high school years obsessing over books and movies that have to do with WWI, I really appreciate Winters’ efforts in depicting a masculinity that is born out of these troubled times. (Look forward to Stephen’s letters!)

In terms of horror, well, I’ve already mentioned that the ghost-y bits aren’t that scary (to me) but other details have definitely made me shudder. Like when these kids are playing around coffins and singing a creepy rhyme*:

I had a little bird,

Its name was Enza,

I opened the window,

And in-flu-enza.

– (Winters, 85)

I could go on and on about this book, but this is, after all, a review and not an essay** so I’ll stop here. For now.

Stay tuned for an interview with the lovely author next week!

Why You May Like It: Mary Shelley! Ghosts! Photography! Trick photography! Mystery! History! And an awesome array of characters!

Why You May Not Like It: With a name like Mary Shelley and a cover that depicts her with her goggles, one might expect Steampunk? Sorry. Wrong book for you, love. Also, for those who delight in gory supernatural scares, this won’t quite cut it. And I kinda, sorta guessed the villain pretty soon, so if you’re someone who reads/watches/breathes mystery and mystery is what you need from a story, well, perhaps wait until we do a mystery themed month here.

All Hallow’s Read? Yes! Especially for people who like old-fashioned ghost stories, photography, and history.

*Are there any non-creepy rhymes, really? Maybe that’s why so many shows capitalize on poems sung by kids.

** Too late! Haha!

5 responses to “In the Shadow of Blackbirds

  1. I love the review, Yash. Especially your point about Mary Shelley being both the scientist and the monster. And you caved in and bought the book! Wasn’t it cheaper in Chapters? Was it on sale? I can’t remember!

    • Thanks Nafiza! It was an excellent decision to buy this book, but I always feel like I’ve betrayed Kidsbooks when I buy from Chapters. It’s irrational and silly, I guess. ^_^

  2. Pingback: Author Interview: Cat Winters | The Book Wars·

  3. Pingback: Book Review: “In The Shadow of Blackbirds” | The Cheap Reader·

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