Book Description from Goodreads:
In the Shadow of Blackbirds, by Cat Winters:
In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?
Featuring haunting archival early-twentieth-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.
I’m never going to write historical fiction. The closest I will ever come is fantasy in a historical setting so that when people tell me all the things I got wrong, I can shrug and say, “Fantasy, remember?”
I suppose technically this author could say the same thing, because she’s writing a book where ghosts exist. But I was the PITA reader seriously bugged by the details. She has her main character describe as scene as surreal. In 1918? The surrealists didn’t start painting until the 1930s. Before then, the word didn’t exist. She excuses a sneeze as allergies. That term was invented in 1906 in Europe, so pretty unlikely to have been in widespread use in 1918 Portland.
Most troublesome to me was that she paints the flu epidemic in San Diego as being apocalyptic in scope, with corpses lying in the street. A quick internet search reveals that 202 people total died of the flu in San Diego out of over 3000 who fell sick in a city of over 70,000 people. That’s … a somewhat unexciting apocalypse.
I did keep reading, but I definitely never became immersed. Instead, I kept leaving the book and looking up random facts on the internet. I guess that makes it an educational read!
The flu epidemic information was the most bothersome — we now know that the pandemic was incredibly devastating and killed millions of people, but people didn’t know that at the time. The epidemic is historically fascinating (to me) not because of the widespread destruction but because in so many places, people were so innocent — newspapers buried the stories about it, people scoffed at the recommendations to wear masks, and by the time they really started to understand the severity, it was almost over. The second burst of the flu, where most of the deaths occurred, actually only lasted for a couple months. Imagine the AIDS epidemic in ultra high speed. I feel like the flu pandemic is actually a lot more interesting than the stereotype of a pandemic in this story, but the story was really more about spiritualism and photography and WWI, so I’m probably being overly picky.
The story overall — lots of vivid smells and tastes, interesting research and information despite inaccuracies, a classic “not like other girls” heroine, a grim mystery with an ending that I did not see coming, and I finished it despite my regular departures to the internet to question the historical accuracy of the details. (The internet failed to tell me when children began being told to share their toys but I really, truly, seriously doubt whether it was much before the 1950s.)
Read via Overdrive.