A candidate for the William Morris Debut Award, In the Shadow of Blackbirds tells the story of young Mary Shelley Black's dark adventure as she flees Portland, Oregon during the fall of 1918. Her father has been swept up in the anti-German hysteria that reigned during WWI here in America. He has been arrested on treason charges and she is left to flee to San Diego to live with her Aunt Eva until his case can be settled.
This novel is full to brimming with so much historical detail that it makes it hard to believe. It's more a comment on the history of the time all wrapped up in a ghost story. Mary Shelley becomes re-acquainted with a boy she knew as a youngster. Stephen Embers has grown up to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather. He has become an excellent photographer. However, his brother has inherited the photography business, and Julius is trying to cash in on the grief-stricken families of those lost during the trench warfare in Europe. He has branched into the area of spiritualism by photographing family survivors with the 'ghosts ' of their loved ones. Stephen hates this kind of exploitation, so he leaves the family business and enlists in the Army.
Mary Shelley is left to wait for the return of her friend. When news of his death in the trenches arrives, she begins having strange nightmares, visitations, and psychic sensations that hint at a much more complicated death for Stephen. Against her Aunt Eva's instruction, she embarks on a dangerous mission to solve the mystery of Stephen's death and let his soul rest, knowing that she has made things right here in the physical world.
Mixed up in all this mystery is the real-life danger of the Spanish Flu pandemic that was sweeping the world during this time. Death seems to stalk everyone here in the physical world and in the spiritual world of Stephen Embers. Mary Shelley must go out into the chaotic world of flu-stricken San Diego in order to ask questions, research the science of photography and Spiritualism, interview young veterans of the war to try to find the answers to the mystery of just what happened to her first love when he entered the service and found himself deep in the bloody trenches of France.
While a neatly told story, I had trouble with the first person narrative. It's not my favorite type of story exposition, so I struggled with all the "I's". I also found the concept of a 16 year old girl being given the freedom to travel alone, roam the streets of San Diego whenever, go in and out of Red Cross hospitals, not attend school, etc. hard to believe. That's fiction for you, though. What's unbelievable is wrapped and packaged into a good story. This is a good story. It just would have benefited from some more work to make it a better story. As a debut novel, it shows the potential of Cat Winters. I'm hoping that she changes up her POV in her next writing endeavor and focuses her overall story line a bit more. We'll see!
In the meantime, the novel fit well into the R.I.P...X reading challenge, as well as my annual goal of reading more award-winning YA and children's literature. If you hit the above link, you can see what other participants are sharing for their R.I.P...X reading challenge posts. This is a fun annual challenge ... check it out!