It’s October 1918. The U.S. has been at war with Germany & Friends for over a year, entangling itself into what would be contemporaneously known as the Great War. And an influenza epidemic is sweeping the globe, killing and infecting millions, and adding fears of disease to American paranoia of German aggression. And Mary Shelly Black is stuck dealing with it all as a sixteen-year-old.
Oh, and by the way, after a near-death experience, she has the spirit of her recently-deceased boyfriend hanging around with her, too.
After reading Out of the Easy, a historical fiction novel I actually liked, I approached In the Shadow of Blackbirds with an attitude of let’s get ‘er dun!! And not only did I read a story just as engaging, I think this was the first work of fiction I ever read concerning the paranormal, regardless of the existence of ghosts or a spirit world. I’m surprised I haven’t read more books like this sooner.
I was impressed that the novel approached the paranormal in a way that didn’t argue for or against its existence, but interwove the paranormal into the story about Mary and Stephen’s continued romance after Stephen’s death. Through Mary’s eyes, readers experience the Great War for non-combatants, and experience the notorious Spanish influenza and the mess it left in its wake. With Mary’s volunteer work at the Red Cross, readers learn about what the soldiers who survived the war suffered, both physical and mental injury, and the loss of innocence of a generation of Americans. In all reality, what reason to go to war is ever a good one? But I digress.
We learn about World War I in schools, about how the decades-long competition between European powers exploded into a conflict unprecedented in history, and how America swooped in at the last second in order to save the day and, in Woodrow Wilson’s words, “make the world safer for democracy.” And yes, there was a flu, but we got over it. We won the war, didn’t we?
Maybe so, but at the price of disillusionment from which it took more than two decades for the US to recover. And, as history tells us, it didn’t end all wars.
Got your gun, Johnny?