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).