Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

In the Shadow of Blackbirds

In the Shadow of Blackbirds

Cat Winters
For ages 14 and up
Abrams, 2013   ISBN: 978-1419705304

Mary Shelley Black’s father has been arrested and she has had to leave her home in Portland to take refuge with her aunt Eva in San Diego. It is the fall of 1918 and the country, indeed much of the world, in gripped by the horror of war and the misery brought about by a flu pandemic. Men, women and children are dying at a terrifying rate. Like just about everyone else, Mary Shelley is wearing a gauze mask, which may or may not protect her from the flu. At this point people are so desperate to protect themselves from the disease that they will do just about anything, including wearing necklaces of garlic and eating onions at every meal.

   Soon after she arrives in San Diego, Mary Shelley’s aunt takes her to have her portrait taken by Julius Embers. Julius is a spiritualist photographer and he is doing very well at the moment because so many people have lost loved ones to the war or to the flu. He takes pictures of people and in the finished portraits there are images of the customers’ dead loved ones. Julius claims that these images are the spirits of the dearly departed. Julius is also the older brother of Stephen, a boy whom Mary Shelley has become very fond of. Mary Shelley and Stephen were best friends when Stephen lived in Portland, and after he moved to California the young people kept in touch by writing letters to one another. Stephen joined the army not long ago and in his last letter he told Mary Shelley that he had sent her a package.

   Though Mary Shelley dislikes and distrusts Julius, she is willing to go for a sitting so that she can get her package, which her aunt says Julius has. Mary Shelley is convinced that Julius is a phony, not only because she does not believe in spiritualism, but because Stephen told her all about his brother’s tricks. Mary Shelley she sits for Julius even though she knows that he may use the photograph to promote his business. When the sitting is over Mary Shelley finally gets her package, which contains a photograph that Stephen took before he left home.

   When Mary Shelley and her aunt go back to get the photograph they see something in the portrait that appalls both of them. Standing next to Mary Shelley is Stephen’s shadowy form. This is how Mary Shelley learns that Stephen died in battle. Mary Shelley is distraught. Her father is in prison, the boy she loved is dead and people are dying of the flu all around her. Lost in her grief she deliberately goes outside during a storm holding something metal and per her wish, she is struck by lightning. Mary Shelley dies, and then she returns to her body.

   Still frail after her incredibly close encounter with death, Mary Shelley attends Stephen’s funeral, which is when she hears him talking to her. For some reason, Mary Shelley can now hear and even see Stephen’s spirit. What it truly appalling is that he is telling her that he is being tormented by birds, that he is suffering. Clearly Stephen died in some terrible way. Mary Shelley feels compelled to find out the truth so that Stephen can finally let go and be at peace. Doggedly Mary Shelley seeks answers. When she was younger, Mary Shelley used to take machines apart to see how they worked. Now she strips away the layers of lies until she finds out what really happened to her beloved Stephen.

   In this sometimes terrifying story, the author explores the way people respond during a time of terrible loss and fear. In 1918 people were dying a disease that could not be stopped, and more people were dying in a distant war. Desperate to connect with their loved ones, people turned to spiritualism for solace and charlatans hoodwinked and took advantage of them. Mary Shelley’s struggles are often painful to share, but the way in which she fights for what she thinks is right is empowering and fascinating.