The Plot: 1918. Mary Shelley Black, 16, has fled Portland, Oregon following her father’s arrest for treason. She is going to stay with her aunt, Eva, in San Diego.
San Diego has changed since the last time she was there, months ago, visiting her aunt and seeing her best friend since childhood, Stephen Embers.
The Spanish Influenza has almost shut down the city. People are in constant fear. And Stephen is gone — even though barely 18, he has volunteered for the army and is fighting in Europe. His regular letters stopped a few weeks ago.
Mary Shelley wants to see Stephen’s mother and older brother, Julius, to find out more about Stephen. The problem is, Stephen and his older half-brother have never gotten along. The last in a long line of disagreements had to do with photography. Stephen takes artistic pictures of nature.
Julius is a spirit photographer, capturing the ghosts of the deceased in photographs of loved ones.
Stephen, disgusted with the scam, joined the Army. Julius spread lies about Stephen taking advantage of Mary Shelley.
The last person Mary Shelley wants to see is Julius. But she will, if it means finding out more about Stephen.
The Good: The nice thing about reading something after it’s been put on a shortlist is being able to read it through the lens of, why this book?
The setting of In the Shadow of Blackbirds is 1918 San Diego: a city in fear of flu, in fear of war. People with masks, afraid of the flu, doing anything to protect themselves. I loved the details, such as the conviction that onions will keep the flu away. How one moment a person is fine, the next they are dying. Even the details of the dying.
I wish there were more books set during World War I. For various reasons, it seems that it’s an overlooked time period in the USA. In the Shadow of Blackbirds looks at the war from the view of life on the homefront. The anti-German bias. The men, ruined in body and spirit, who returned from the battlefields. How people treated shell shock. The propaganda. And the way that any dissent was treated.
Spirit photography is part of that homefront: between the deaths from the war and the deaths from the flu, people are desperate and look for any comfort. To have lost a loved one, then given proof in the form of a photograph that they are still there? It’s a gift.
A gift that Julius gives to people, for a price. A gift that both Stephen and Mary Shelley are skeptical about. Stephen, because he believes that Julius is mistreating the art of photography. Mary Shelley, because she is a scientist that doesn’t believe in ghosts. In the Shadow of Blackbirds, details are given about the tricks and inventions people use to fake spiritual photography and seances; and how people catch those faking.
It also gives the possibility of ghosts being true. Mary Shelley, scientist, always pragmatic, almost dies. After, she sees and senses things differently. One of those things — well, a ghost. Or, at least, one ghost. Believing in spirits doesn’t mean that she also believes, suddenly, in spirit photography or seances. In some ways, it makes her more skeptical. At this point, In the Shadow of Blackbirds also turns into a mystery, as Mary Shelley begins to investigate the death of the ghost. (Look at me, being all careful about that identity of the ghost!)
Mary Shelley is an interesting character: she’s the daughter of a female physician, who died shortly after giving birth to her. Her father’s been arrested for treason, but it’s more that he’s an an anti-war pacifist than someone agitating for the downfall of his country. She loves science, and is the type of person who, when she takes something apart and then puts it back together, it works better than it did before.
And Aunt Eva! I felt so much sympathy for Eva, only 26. What she wants is what a typical woman of that time wants: a home, a husband, children. She has no children; her husband died young; and she’s working endless hours in a factory. She has a home where she has to hide anything with German connections, even though — as she explains — the family is Swiss. And while she has a home to offer Eva, she’s not well off — they cannot afford electricity. Eva even has had to cut her hair short, because of her work in the factory. Eva wants a happy ending that involves a man and children; instead, she’s working and taking care of a stubborn teenager.
My last thought, which really has nothing to do with the Morris criteria. The cover! I LOVE when a publisher doesn’t use stock photos. The cover replicates a photograph taken of Mary Shelley. More information about the cover design — including the care taken with the font — is at The Lucky 13s blog, in the post Cover Scoop.