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. At her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and ...
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. At 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-20th-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.
Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black lives up to her striking name—she’s a curious girl fascinated by science, living in 1918, “a year the devil designed,” as Mary puts it. With WWI raging on and Mary’s father on trial for treason, she goes to live with her Aunt Eva in San Diego, Calif., even as influenza sweeps across America, devastating the population and rendering those left behind paranoid and weary. Grieving for her childhood beau Stephen, who died while fighting overseas with the Army, Mary goes outside during a thunderstorm and is struck dead by lightning—for a few minutes. When Mary comes to, she discovers she can communicate with the dead, including Stephen. Winters’s masterful debut novel is an impressively researched marriage of the tragedies of wartime, the 1918 flu epidemic, the contemporaneous Spiritualism craze, and a chilling love story and mystery. Unsettling b&w period photographs appear throughout, à la Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, greatly adding to the novel’s deliciously creepy atmosphere. Ages 12–up. Agent: Barbara Poelle, Irene Goodman Agency. (Apr.)
- Diane Colson
In 1918, a virulent influenza virus is raging across the nation, while an endless war in Europe continues to devour young soldiers in its terrible trenches. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black is seriously tired of wearing surgical masks and stinking of onion. When her father is arrested for treason, Mary Shelley travels to San Diego to stay with her aunt Eva. This also serves as an opportunity for her to reconnect with the special guy she has known since childhood, Stephen. She catches him on the day before he leaves to fight in the war. Nevertheless, their passionate last meeting is enough to establish the love they must now express through letter writing . . . until Stephen's letters stop coming. The nearness of death creates constant tension in this novel. All of the historical elements—fascination with seances, women working long days in factories, young men severely disfigured by the war—are rolled naturally into Mary Shelley's quest to discover Stephen's fate. Romance fans will love Stephen's ghostly visits to Mary Shelley, confirming that their romance is as steamy as ever. Mystery lovers will enjoy the satisfactory resolution of the puzzle. Of particular interest is Winters's treatment of the condition of "shell shock," which becomes relevant each time there is a war. Recommend this title to fans of Libba Bray's The Diviners (Little, Brown 2012/Voya August 2012). Reviewer: Diane Colson
- Kasey Giard
After Mary Shelley's father is arrested as a traitor, she flees to her aunt's home in southern California, safe from the ugliness of war and the Spanish Influenza epidemic. When Mary Shelley arrives, she finds the flu epidemic as alive and dangerous as it was in her Oregon hometown, and her childhood sweetheart, now a US soldier, apparently missing. With so many families grieving loved ones lost to war or disease, many people turn to Spiritualism, seeking help from famed photographer who claims to capture spirits of dearly departed in his portraits of the living. Mary Shelley's aunt presses her into sitting for a portrait, but no one is more surprised than Mary Shelley when the foggy image of Stephen, her love and missing soldier appears with her in the photograph. Soon after, Stephen's ghost visits Mary Shelley, clearly frightened and disturbed. Refusing to accept the public story of his death, Mary Shelley vows to uncover the truth about Stephen's death and find some way to help him rest in peace. While the story brings to life an important period in American history, capturing the desperation of World War I and the fear of the flu epidemic, some of the other elements seems almost at war with themselves. Mary Shelley is devoted to science and scientific understanding and staunchly believes that the spiritualism craze is bogus and full of dishonest vendors taking advantage of families of war and flu victims. She decries both the seance and the photographs of her with spirits, yet firmly believes in the encounters she has with Stephen's ghost, and never really explores why she believes one and not the others, or whether other people may be able to contact spirits. Some of the scenes where Mary Shelley visits Stephen's ghost leave Mary Shelley longing for him and yet those scenes were creepy. It was hard to understand her fascination and longing for him, though her desire to see him at peace is a noble one. Reviewer: Kasey Giard
School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up—The year is 1918. World War I is killing millions of boys abroad, and the flu pandemic is killing millions of Americans at home. People are increasingly desperate, looking to Spiritualism and folk remedies to help them speak to dead loved ones and survive the flu. After her father is jailed for anti-Americanism, Mary Shelley Black, 16, must go live with her aunt in San Diego. There she is confronted with memories of her first love, Stephen, who is away at war. She is also forced to face Julius, Stephen's bully of an older brother who is making a fortune as a "Spiritualist Photographer," a photographer who can capture ghosts in images. She also meets Mr. Darning, a man with a broken heart who is trying to prove that Julius is a fake. After Mary Shelley learns of Stephen's "heroic" death, she is visited by his suffering ghost. His spirit is delusional and scared, and Mary Shelley suspects there is a terrible reason he's not at rest. Did Stephen really die on the frontline? How are Julius and Mr. Darning involved? Winters deftly combines mystery, ghost story, historical fiction, and romance. The character development is not deep, but the excellent pacing and deliciously creepy descriptions of Spiritualism more than make up for it; the story and setting are atmospheric and eerie. Black-and-white photos are scattered throughout the book, giving context to the time period.—Laura Lutz, Pratt Institute, New York City
A bright young woman is caught between science and spiritualism in her quest to make sense of a world overcome with war and disease in 1918 California. Mary Shelley Black's world has been turned upside down by the arrest of her father at their home in Portland, Ore. It is 1918, and the country is at war; those who speak out against it, like her father, find themselves persecuted. Mary Shelley flees to her Aunt Eva in San Diego to avoid possible fallout from the arrest and since it might be a better place to wait out the influenza epidemic that is sweeping the country. Her new home allows her to reconnect with the family of her first love, Stephen, now a soldier fighting in the war. This place is just as full of anxiety and fear as Portland, the toll from war and disease sending her families grasping at anything to alleviate their pain. Stephen's distasteful half brother, Julius, exploits those fears and the growing interest in the occult by serving as a "spirit photographer"--an occupation Mary Shelley is skeptical of until Stephen is killed and she is visited by his ghost. Winters strikes just the right balance between history and ghost story, neatly capturing the tenor of the times, as growing scientific inquiry collided with heightened spiritualist curiosity. Vintage photographs contribute to the authenticity of the atmospheric and nicely paced storytelling. (Historical fiction. 12 & up)
Cat Winters is the author of In the Shadow of Blackbirds, which received three starred reviews and was a finalist for YALSA’s Morris Award for debut YA fiction. She grew up near Disneyland in Southern California. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family.