The Plot: Jennie Lovell’s loved ones left to fight in the Civil War: her twin brother, Tobias; her fiance and cousin, Will Pritchett; and her other cousin, Quinn, Will’s brother. She knew the moment Toby died: could feel it. She never suspected Will’s death, not until a wounded Quinn came home and told them his brother Will had died. Jennie wishes she could feel Will’s presence the way she does Toby’s
Will’s grieving parents, Jennie’s Aunt and Uncle, seek out a photographer who can capture the images of departed spirits. Jennie begins getting strange messages – is it Will? What is he trying to tell her?
As Jennie struggles with the loss of Toby and Will, she also struggles for her future. Her Aunt and Uncle had never looked kindly or generously on their orphaned niece, and now her position is even more precarious. To make matters even more confusing, Quinn has returned from war a changed man. It’s not just that he’s physically injured: he seems almost a different person. War changes a man, he explains. Would falling in love with Quinn be a betrayal of Will?
The Good: “A ghost will always find his way home.”
So, so good! I love when historical fiction is about something I didn’t know, or is set during a unique time. Picture the Dead is set in Massachusetts during the last days of the Civil War. In addition to taking a look at spiritualism and the use of photography to capture spirit images, it also takes a frank look at the soldiers who fought, revealing details about their lives and survival I’d never heard before.
Jennie’s position in the family is unique: she is the orphaned niece they have to take in, and neither aunt nor uncle is really happy to do so. Aunt Clara is hideous, and at first I thought Uncle Henry’s flaw was weakness that tolerated, thus allowing, his wife’s nastiness. The further I read, the more I realized that Aunt Clara was at least honest in her dislike of her niece.
Gradually, Jennie’s role becomes more and more servant-like. As someone with no education, money, or connections, someone whose only male protectors (Toby and Will) have died, she has few options. “I must find a way to rescue myself,” she realizes early on, but what, exactly, can she do? Is she truly feeling an attraction to Quinn, or is she looking at him for security?
Jennie may hate her situation, but I adored this look at someone who is caught between upstairs and downstairs. Jennie sensed when her brother died; it’s because of this that she is open to the possibility of spiritualism connecting her with Will. She doesn’t understand what she’s being told, but she believes it’s messages from beyond and she’s resolved to follow them. Jennie’s beliefs are wonderfully shown: “For if memory is the wave that buoys our grief, haunting is the undertow that drags us to its troubled source.”
Picture the Dead is told in part scrapbook format; specifically, Jennie’s scrapbook. Lisa Brown’s illustrations show the photographs, drawings, even newspaper clippings that make up Jennie’s scrapbook. I love how Jennie puts together the scrapbook, how she gathers what to put in it.
Picture the Dead is also a mystery. I won’t say, exactly, what the mystery turns out to be, because that is part of the fun of this book — trying to figure out what is going on, what people’s motivations are, and what type of future Jennie can create for herself.