April 2013

Searching for answers in a time of death and disease

By Cat Winters
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The year is 1918, and wherever 16-year-old Mary Shelley Black turns, she is confronted with people’s fears of the deadly Spanish influenza. Desperate attempts to ward off or cure the disease abound: Victims are smothered in raw onions; the uninfected wear pouches reeking of supposed medicines around their necks to prevent getting sick; and soldiers returning from WWI have been quarantined. Nothing is certain.

After her father’s arrest for opposing the war, Mary Shelley sets out from Portland to stay with her Aunt Eva in San Diego, where it seems that everyone she meets is wearing a gauze mask to try to protect themselves from this horrible disease.

In the wake of the Great War, it’s no wonder that people are turning to superstition and séances to make sense of the mystery of death. In the weeks that follow her arrival in California, Mary Shelley is confronted with a mystery only she can solve: What exactly has happened to Stephen, the young soldier she loves so deeply? Was he a victim of the battlefield, or was there another, even darker reason for his death?

Mary Shelley is a likable, sympathetic heroine, and through her story, teen readers will get a glimpse of a fascinating time period, made all the more real by the haunting historic photographs that pepper the novel, from soldiers in trenches to policemen in gauze masks. Part romance, part mystery and part ghost story, In the Shadow of Blackbirds makes palpable a terrifying time that brought the horror of death into the homes of millions.

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