Title: In the Shadow of Blackbirds
Author: Cat Winters
Publication Date: 2013
Publisher: Amulet Books
Number of Pages: 387
Awards: YALSA Awards for Best Fiction for Young Adults, School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, Bram Stoker Award Nominee
Genre/Subgenre: Historical Fiction, War Fiction, Ghost Stories
Admidst the end of WWI and the Spanish Influenza, a teen scientist must put her childhood sweetheart’s soul to rest.
After her father is accused of treason and jailed for not supporting WWI, sixteen-year-old aspiring scientist Mary Shelley Black is sent to San Diego to live with her aunt Eva, who is terrified of catching the Spanish Influenza and insists that Mary Shelley must wear a mask at all times and avoid infectious crowds. Aunt Eva also brings Mary Shelley back into contact with the Embers family – with the mother and half-brother of Stephen Embers, Mary Shelley’s childhood friend and sweetheart, who enlisted and was sent to France. Stephen’s brother Julius has become a spiritualist photographer who allegedly captures the images of dead soldiers and influenza victims in photographs with their loved ones. Mary Shelley doesn’t trust Julius’s business and doesn’t want to pose for him, but finally poses at the request of her aunt. When Mary Shelley receives the photo days later, the photo shows her and a ghostly image of Stephen. His family announces that he has been killed in battle and his body is being sent home. When Mary Shelley attends the funeral a week later, she hears Stephen’s voice talking to her, telling her he is scared and that “blackbirds” are trying to kill him. Eventually, Stephen begins to appear to Mary Shelley, begging her to find out how he died and set his soul at rest. Mary Shelley begins an investigation, trying to learn as much about the afterlife, Spiritualism, and trench warfare as possible. However, the objections of her aunt and Stephen’s family, as well as the ever-present threat of the Spanish Influenza, threaten to keep her from discovering the truth of her beloved Stephen’s death. When Mary Shelley does discover the awful truth, she realizes that war, family, and death are more complicated than she could have possibly imagined.
This novel, the first by Cat Winters, is an engrossing read. It is very clear that the author did a lot of research on the historical topics in the novel – WWI, the Spanish Influenza, shell shock, Spiritualism, and photography. The characters, particularly the heroine Mary Shelley Black, were all very interesting and Cat Winters did a wonderful job of capturing the relationship between Mary Shelley and her childhood sweetheart Stephen. Fans of war stories, early 20th century history, the Spiritualism fad, and ghost stories will adore this novel.
Why I Chose the Book:
I really enjoy war fiction, and the combination of WWI, the Spanish Influenza, and the Spiritualist Movement sounded fascinating to me.
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Book Talk Ideas
In the Shadow of Blackbirds would complement a curriculum study on WWI. A library display of this novel could include books of WWI poetry mentioned in the novel such as A Treasury of War Poetry.
1. The issue of Spiritualism and Spiritual photography are very controversial in the novel and each of the characters feels very differently about it. Why do you think Spiritualism and Spiritual photography were appealing to people in 1918? Why do each of the characters have such a strong opinion on these issues?
2. In the Shadow of Blackbirds centers around a very important ghost story: is Mary Shelley really seeing Stephen and how did he die? Were you surprised by the answer? Why or why not? What clues did the author give us throughout the novel to solve the mystery?
Goodreads (2014). In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13112915-in-the-shadow-of-blackbirds?from_search=true
“In the Shadow of Blackbirds.” NoveList K-8. EBSCO, 29 Mar. 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. Retrieved from http://0-web.a.ebscohost.com.catalog.sjlibrary.org/novpk8/detail?vid=3&sid=58e14615-030e-499f-aa31-8717660ed420%40sessionmgr4004&hid=4106&bdata=JnNpdGU9bm92cGs4LWxpdmU%3d#db=njh&UI=10177232
Winters, C. (2014). In the Shadow of Blackbirds [Blog]. Retrieved from http://www.blackbirdsnovel.com
Winters, C. (2013). In the Shadow of Blackbirds. New York: Amulet Books.