First Lines: I admit, I had seen a ghost or two.
Cat Winters is a writer I frequently come back to. She writes interesting historical fictions that are heavily researched and nuanced while also having a touch of something supernatural about them. I love that combo. (Her debut, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, was a pretty big YA hit.) This one, one of her first adult books, had been on my to-read list for a while. I knew I’d like it…I just wasn’t sure when I’d be in the mood for it.
Twenty-five year old Ivy Rowan rises from her bed after suffering from the flu only to discover the world has turned upside down. Ivy’s “gift” (more like curse) of seeing the dead still remains. These ghostly appearances always mean that someone is going to die. On an October evening in 1918, she sees her grandmother in her mother’s rocking chair. An hour later, Ivy learns her father and brother killed a German in retaliation for the death of Ivy’s brother Billy in the Great War. Horrified, Ivy has to leave home, only to discover that the flu has caused panic and changed the rules of society. Ivy’s drawn to the world of jazz, passion, and freedom, a world where anyone could die tomorrow but they’re living for today. But as her uninvited ghosts appear more often, she knows something terrible is happening–and she doesn’t know what to do about it.
I was not expecting it to hit as hard as it did.
Of course, it’s set in 1918 as World War I is ongoing and the Spanish Flu is ravishing the country. I knew the pandemic stuff was going to be tough, considering 2020, but it was both easier and harder to read because of that. For one, I could obviously picture the mounting panic the city was going through as the virus spread. I knew what their next steps would be to mitigate risks. But it was also harder to read because the Spanish Flu symptoms these people have…they’re horrific. Absolutely horrific.
This story also touches quite a bit on how Americans turned against anyone and anything German. Streets and businesses changed names, people who were German were forced to do humiliating things like kiss American flags in front of mobs to prove their loyalty to the US, and even that might still not be enough. As the descendent of German immigrants, this hurt to read about, knowing my own family probably experienced some of this.
Now that we’ve gotten past setting, let’s talk characters. Ivy is very sweet. She’s been sick with the flu but is recovering when her father and brother come home and reveal they’ve killed a German man in town. She’s horrified. And she feels incredibly guilty. She wants to make amends in any way she can, which leads her to Daniel Schendel’s doorstep. I really liked Ivy for her determination and her sense of right and wrong, which was needed more than you might think. Her ability to see ghosts added another layer of interest to the story.
As for minor characters, there are so many different personalities there. A war widow into Spiritualism, an APL volunteer keeping an eye out for anti-American behavior (like speaking in your native language or playing Beethoven), a couple of Red Cross nurses desperate to save as many people as possible, etc. They’re all so real and interesting in their own ways. And Daniel…I have a soft spot for this grieving, broken man just trying to move on.
But I tell you what, that ending hit me hard. It was raw and surprising and heartbreaking. It got me right in the feels. I needed tissues.
This was really good. My only complaint was that I felt there were times the story was slow in the beginning and it didn’t always keep my interest.