Saturday, December 01, 2012

A look back at Sarah Jio's Blackberry Winter

It's a little embarrassing to be posting a review of Sarah Jio's Blackberry Winter this late, considering I received the ARC back in (ahem) March.  I breezed through it more quickly than I expected, turning the last page on the night before I took my flight to London in mid-September.  Then other responsibilities called, and well...

My tardiness, however, proved that Jio has a talent for crafting memorable characters and scenarios.  My recollections of her two heroines, both in 1933 and 2010, are as clear as the language used to describe their emotional stories.

Vera Ray's heartbreaking tale stands out for me the most.  A single mom struggling with poverty in Depression-era Seattle, she is forced to leave her adorable three-year-old son, Daniel, alone in her apartment while she works the night shift as a maid in an exclusive hotel.  On the morning after a freak May snowstorm, Vera returns home to find Daniel gone, and his teddy bear left abandoned in a snowdrift.  Even readers without children will be able to relate to her pain and helplessness.  In this class-conscious era, money talks; the police turn aside her pleas for help, saying Daniel must have run away.  Which is ridiculous, of course, and Vera knows it.

Vera's job puts her in the company of the city's elite, although she knows she can never join their ranks.  Flashbacks draw her back to her affair with Daniel's father, the wealthy son of a prominent Seattle family.  Her first-person voice brings her plight home in an immediate, very personal way.

A parallel strand introduces Claire Aldridge, a talented 21st-century journalist still grieving the loss of her unborn baby, an event which is tearing her marriage apart.  Claire has managed something Vera could never achieve, marrying into a powerful newspaper dynasty, but she suffers from depression and lacks purpose.  After a similar "blackberry winter" storm hits Seattle, Claire's editor asks her to come up with a story surrounding the May Day snow of 1933, which leads her to Vera and Daniel... and drives her to uncover the mystery of the boy's abduction.

And so the novel bounces lightly between big-band dance marathons and contemporary society galas, and between a dingy Depression-era tenement and a bustling modern café as two women nearly 80 years apart search for answers and try to recapture what they've lost.  There's a lot of dialogue in both sections, peppered with slang from their respective periods, which keeps things humming briskly along.

Are Claire and Vera linked in unexpected ways?  That's what the back cover blurb asks, and readers will already know the answer.  It's a credit to Jio's storytelling that the plot's uncanny coincidences (and there are a lot of them) don't lessen its poignancy, though.  Her empathy for mothers who had the misfortune to lose a child, as mentioned in her dedication, comes through on every page.

Blackberry Winter was published by Plume in September at $15.00, or $16.00 in Canada (trade pb, 290pp).

12 comments:

  1. Thank you for the review.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very nice review -- this one sticks in my mind as well and while it wasn't a favorite, I can see why so many love her books. Jio really evoked place-as-character in this one, I thought!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Audra, I found your review on Goodreads after I wrote mine - it was excellent and very fair, considering it wasn't your type of book! It was good at giving readers an armchair tour of historical and modern Seattle.

      Delete
  3. That's the era of my writing too,and what those Depression-era women had to go through--the endurance required of them--is remarkable. The latest manifestation of that is the memories of the women interviewed in Ken Burns' recent Dust Bowl special on PBS.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the recommendation of the Dust Bowl special - I'll look out for it. There are several strong Depression-era women in this novel, not just Vera.

      Delete
  4. Nice review, Sarah! I felt the same way. A light, quick read that nonetheless packed an emotional punch. You're right about those characters sticking around long after the last page.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jessica! I've also read The Bungalow, her 2nd novel... another quick, light read with a detailed setting. I thought this one was more emotionally involving, though.

      Delete
  5. I have heard so many good things about Jio. I am really looking forward to reading more by her.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I read the other day she has a new publishing deal for more novels... I hope they're of the same type (mix of contemporary + historical).

      Delete
  6. I picked it up during a Michigan snowstorm yesterday, all snugged down with a headcold under a blanket. I literally did not put it back down untilI finished it. I was so caught up with the two stories and with the introduction of places and things that drew the two periods together. Well done.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's an excellent book to curl up with when it's cold outside. I hope you feel better!

      Delete